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Interview: Author Kate Jacobs

In my second interview with a Kat(i)e Jacobs (the House executive producer being the other one), I chatted with the author of The Friday Night Knitting Club and the newly released Comfort Food. I’ve got some extra quotes I’ll post a little later. She’s a wonderfully friendly and interesting woman and we talked for an hour and a half, so there was a little more to our talk than I could put in the article.

  • Interview: Author Kate Jacobs of Comfort Food, Friday Night Knitting Club
    “Her latest novel, Comfort Food, features cooking show host Gus Simpson, who has ‘a lot on her plate.’ Jacobs describes the main character’s journey in hunger-inducing terms: ‘You have to learn to eat everything on your plate. You have to learn to savour the different tastes on your plate. How does this character go from saying she has this emotionally overloaded plate to taking what life is giving her and putting together an emotionally nourishing meal?'” Read more.
Truth and Consequences

Truth and Consequences

I can’t help myself. I got another one of those glurgy chain emails today, intended to be heartwarming but really just a steaming pile that came from another part of the body. And because I’m me, I sent my friend the Snopes page debunking the story behind it even though I know, I know, I know, no one wants to know the truth when the fiction is more interesting.

You know the one about Mariah Carey saying she’d like to be as skinny as starving kids, just not with the flies and death and stuff? Never happened. Except in a satirical article that got picked up by legitimate newspapers who didn’t recognize the satire. Bill Gates won’t give you money depending on how many emails you forward, either.

But it’s more interesting to believe Mariah Carey is just that stupid and insensitive, or that we can get a slice of the Microsoft pie. And interesting too often trumps truth, even when we’re framing it as reality.

After the exposed fraud of Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, the latest to be revealed as pure fiction was Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones, purportedly “a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.” In reality, Jones is the pseudonym of Margaret Seltzer, “who is all white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family.”

In university, my favourite set of courses were in creative non-fiction writing. In one, my friend Bonnie made a terrible confession to our professor, a stern Icelandic-Canadian author whose measured praise was prized and off-hand dismissals feared.

Before I’d ever heard of the Internet, these classes were terrific practice for blogging. We read aloud our stories and awaited the comments from classmates, some thoughtful, some adding their own interesting though perhaps tangential perspective, some so completely out to lunch you wondered if they’d been listening to the voices in their head instead of the words being read to them. Too polite was dismissive. Too cutting was easy to dismiss. We treasured those comments that really got what we were trying to say but offered insight into how we could come closer to an emotional truth.

Bonnie’s confession came after a round of particularly effusive and uncommonly unanimous praise for her story of attending a recently unsegregated school as a child in the US. She told our professor that sometimes, well, quite often, she – not lied, but embellished the truth in order to make a better story. Not to make it more dramatic, exactly, but to give it more shape, to bring out the meaning more clearly. Now she was feeling guilty for the undeserved praise.

The professor laughed and told her – later told the class – that was where the creative part of creative non-fiction comes in. Today, we’d be having the conversation about the difference between William S. Burroughs and James Frey, and ponder the question: why didn’t Margaret Seltzer write a novel? Instead, we discussed where the line is between non-fiction and fiction, and opinions were varied, but all fit loosely within the standard non-fiction disclaimer of altered details.

I was less inclined than Bonnie to purposely embellish, though memory is a tricky guide. But the beauty of creative non-fiction is in shaping the story. We can choose the details to include and to exclude. There’s the trivial: we can choose to change names, like “Bonnie,” or withhold them, like the name of a certain Icelandic-Canadian author. There’s the more profound: we can choose where to end. We can stop at the bike ride to school with a new black friend or continue to the nasty names in the cafeteria that make it a story less about hope. We can stop at the marriage rather than the divorce, the baby’s birth rather than the terrible twos, the death rather than the grief.

And we can choose our own personal meaning for the events we’re writing about, which might seem contrary to telling the truth but is really the essence of it. Much as I love fiction, there is a beauty in truth.

But that’s also the mundane reason why Seltzer didn’t simply write a novel: incredible but true stories sell better. It’s silly to personalize it, but to a lover of literary non-fiction writing — Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is a personal favourite — the actions of these fraudulent memoir writers seem like a betrayal. Because our professor was right, there’s a creative part to creative non-fiction. But there’s also a non-fiction part to it.

The Other Side of the Bridge

I suspect saying a book is beautifully structured comes across like saying “she has a nice personality” about a blind date. But in Mary Lawson’s The Other Side of the Bridge, a book I picked up without knowing anything about it, the beautiful structure propels the finely written narrative to a climax I couldn’t wait to reach, except that it meant reaching the final pages. In other words, this book was my best blind date ever.

The prologue, a scene of a childhood game between brothers, perfectly illustrates the relationship of silent, responsible Arthur — the one his mother depends on — and his charismatic, reckless little brother Jake — the one his mother loves. It’s a relationship that’s irrevocably changed by an incident on the titular bridge, complicated by the arrival of the beautiful Laura, and that comes to a head in the charged climax, decades later.

The book spans Arthur’s depression-era childhood on a farm in remote northern Ontario, through the devastation of World War II as seen from the home front, and into the 1960’s life of young Ian, who begins to work on Arthur’s farm as part of his attempt to escape from the expectation that he will become the next Dr. Christopherson.

The novel’s moody atmosphere is punctuated with humour, and Lawson brings alive the tiny (and fictional) town of Struan and its inhabitants through fabulous details of the doctor’s practice and life on the farm, for example.

By flicking back and forth through time, The Other Side of the Bridge sets up a sense of the stories colliding, but not of the how, until Lawson chooses late in the novel to reveal key scenes. We have information early on, like the fact that Laura becomes Arthur’s wife, or that Ian has a crush on his boss’s wife, that we don’t quite know what to do with until the story unfolds. That structure adds tension to the quiet world of Arthur Dunn and his young employee, both fighting against their seemingly inevitable fates.

Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, The Other Side of the Bridge is a tender yet catastrophic story of family expectation, responsibility, and rivalry, with exquisite imagery and detail. I haven’t yet read Crow Lake, Lawson’s first novel, but The Other Side of the Bridge has ensured that I’ll be picking that one up, too.

Happiness Sold Separately

People magazine is on crack.

That’s probably not a newsflash, but the specific motivation for my accusation is the blurb on the front cover of one of the books I bought when I finally gave up on my non-serendipitous mistaken purchase.

“A touching, comic tale.” – People.

I know, I know, never trust a blurb. Who knows what the full review said. But in Lolly Winston’s Happiness Sold Separately, that word “comic” seems very out of place.

There are some funny lines, sure. I occasionally, accidentally make people laugh, too, but you couldn’t call me a comic. The book’s about “infidelity, infertility, a failing marriage, and a troubled kid.” HA! Nothing funnier than those subjects.

OK, I kinda liked that sitcom about a Nazi POW camp, but still.

That aside, Happiness Not Included is an interesting and authentic take on infidelity, infertility, a failing marriage, and a troubled kid, from the point of view of wife, husband, lover, even housekeeper. It hit the spot for me, a light read with real emotion and depth, flawed but sympathetic characters, and insight into the messiness of love. And, yes, wry humour. But I swear you’ll be more often closer to tears than laughter.

Embarrassing confession

I had a boss once who was bad at remembering people’s names, but astonishing in his recall of the pattern of consonants and vowels in those names. He’d say, “it’s Joe something, consonant consonant vowel consonant” and sure enough, it would be a Joe Blow. That’s a lazy example so I don’t have to write out “consonant” and “vowel” too many times, but he’d do it with long names, too. I found it amusing and, as always with the way memory works, intriguing.

I have my own version of that, but it’s less Stupid Human Tricks and more Stupid Human. Echoing that consonant vowel memory but without its usefulness, I tend to mix up names like Harper and Martin. In fact, exactly like Harper and Martin. This is a problem, non-Canadian readers, because Harper and Martin are the last names of our last two prime ministers, who are not at all similar. When it seems like you can’t remember who runs your country, it can be a bit of a credibility issue.

Recently, I had an even less explainable lapse. My local grocery store had a bin of discounted paperbacks by the register, and I impulse bought one by an author I admire, celebrating at my luck in getting such a bargain on a new read by the man who wrote Saturday and Atonement, Ian Whatshisface.

The book’s been sitting on my shelf for weeks waiting for its turn in my reading lineup, and when I finally picked it up a few days ago, something didn’t seem right. The jacket cover looked a little less literary than I’d have expected. Reading beyond the author’s name and the title brought the sad news that this was number 13 in a series. The Inspector Rebus series. Uh oh.

I’d bought a book by Ian Rankin instead of Ian McEwan. There are consonants and vowels in the wrong place all over those names. I’m sure Rankin is good at what he does, and he probably sells far more books than McEwan, but I’m not a crime or mystery fan at all, never mind the fact that I’ve missed out on the first 12 of Inspector Rebus’s adventures. You can tell, too, from reading Resurrection Men that there are constant references to already covered ground, which makes it an infuriating and boring read for someone coming in at #13.

Yes, that means I’m reading it anyway. I don’t have anything more compelling in line at the moment, and I’m always looking for new authors to try out, and I thought maybe this would end up being a serendipitous memory failure. It wasn’t. The book has my attention just enough to beat out the Cagney and Lacey book I should but probably never will review, but not enough of my attention that it will outlast my next book shopping trip, which I’m now motivated to schedule soon. Armed with a detailed shopping list.