Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Writer's Space: Jane McLoughlin

There's a little bookstore on the other side of South Minneapolis called The Wild Rumpus where chickens peck freely and cats loll between stacks of books on the front window display. The front door has a child-sized door within the adult-sized one. Needless to say, Little A loves it and when I tell her that we're going to the bookstore, she asks, "tiny door?" Yes, A, tiny door.

We visited there a few weeks ago. I usually have a moment or two of chicken-centric toddler distraction to glance at the narrow adult bookshelf, but generally I am shepherding A from child's shelf to child shelf and trying to keep her from choking the poultry. Once, she went to pet a cat, which was oddly convulsing on the floor and proceeded to puke right at her feet. Now, A crawls around on the floor saying, "I cat! I cat!" and then making gagging motions before announcing, "I choke!"

But I digress.

During our last visit, I was looking for a novel to pick up. I wanted something easy and fast-paced, something that would be a break from the heavy memoirs I've been reading lately. It had crossed my mind that perhaps the next title would be something young adult. It had been a while.

So while A found another family of little girls and a read-a-loud grandmother to temporarily latch on to, I took advantage and perused the young adult area. I was not disappointed. I found a pile of At Yellow Lake on a table -- a book, I later found out, wasn't available anywhere else at the time. I love these moments of happenstance. I love it when I pick up a book at a store and the first few paragraphs suck me in -- even with my kid bothering another family in the background -- and I realize that I have to take it home and read it.

At Yellow Lake, by Minnesota-born, UK transplant Jane McLoughlin, tells the stories of three teenagers -- Etta, Jonah, and Peter - who meet each other at a cabin on Yellow Lake in Wisconsin. Some would say they were brought together by fate or by some mystical power. I would not be one of those people. In a way, each was driven away from their homes by their dysfunctional parents. It is because of these fictional parents that I will probably make my teenaged children read these books. "See?" I will say, "At least I'm not dating a violent creepoid like Etta's mom or denying you your heritage like Jonah's mom or remaining distant and aloof after the death of your other parent like Peter's mom." Hopefully these things will be true, in part, because I will still be happily together with a very much alive co-parent.

Again, I digress.

At its surface, this story is about both the trials of these teenagers and the violence that meets them at the cabin. But at its heart, it's about relationships between peers. I had a few moments of thinking, "Wait, these kids have only known each other for a day and they're already immersed in all this drama and emotions." But, then I remembered what it's like to be a teenager, how relationships, especially in emotionally intense situations, unfold like the fast-forward button has been hit. As she tells the story from each of the main character's point of view, McLoughlin manages to capture both the specificity of their stories and voice and the universality of being a teenager.

McLouglin returned Stateside to launch her book and I was lucky enough to have a brief email correspondence with her about the writing life.

Why did you choose Minnesota and Wisconsin for the setting?
The setting was the real starting point for the book. I’m from Minnesota, and my family has a cabin in Wisconsin, which was built by my grandfather in the 1930s and 40s. The cabin has always felt like my spiritual home, especially since I’ve moved so far away from it, and thinking about the notion of “home” is what sparked my initial ideas. Having said that, the woods are darker and denser in the book, the fictional cabin is more remote than the actual one, the setting is much less sinister tin real-life, thankfully!

When I picked up At Yellow Lake at The Wild Rumpus, I was particularly struck by Etta's voice -- which is in the first person. The other two characters' chapters are in third person. What made you decide to approach each character in these different ways?
I have to admit that I never actually decided on this approach. I just couldn’t make the boys work in the first person, and I couldn’t make Etta work in the third, so that’s the way they were written. I was quite worried that this might be problematic for readers (as well as for editors and publishers!) but so far, this hasn’t been the case.

I've come across writers who are anxious or uneasy about having a central character be of a different background (such as age, gender, race, socio-economic status) from themselves. Did you have any reservations about writing Jonah's story given that he's a teenaged, Native American boy? How did you overcome them?
I have felt very anxious and uneasy about the issue of cultural appropriation, but Jonah’s background was so integral to the story that At Yellow Lake couldn’t have been written without including him. Because the story came from a specific setting—a plot of land on a lake in Wisconsin—and sprang from a specific set of questions—whose land is this, anyway—Jonah had to be part of the story. When I started to think about At Yellow Lake, I was struck by the cruel irony that the place I’ve always considered my spiritual home was, in fact, stolen from its original inhabitants. So the cabin at the lake reflects history in a way, becoming a contested site, with both Jonah and Peter (whose grandfather built the cabin, and who is at the lake to honour a request by his dead mother) both claiming the place as theirs. And, of course, the writing process makes a character come alive, so Jonah is, to me, just Jonah, and one of my three “kids”, none of whom have lives that are anything like mine.

I'm an associate editor at the website Literary Mama and as a mother myself, I'm particularly interested in how the writing life effects motherhood and vice versa. Did you write even when your children were little? Now that they are grown, do they read your writing as you're working on it or do they have to wait like the rest of us? Did you have any reservations about what you were writing because you have children? Or, conversely, do your children influence your writing?

I love this question! I actually started writing when my son, Sean, was born, almost 24 years ago. My first published story was sold before he was a year old, and my second story was published shortly after my daughter, Hannah, was born 20 years ago. This shows how unproductive I was in those years--I think it took me about a year per 1500 word story! So writing was a huge part of my role as mother. I have some great pictures of baby Hannah sitting on the kitchen table next to my old manual typewriter, munching on a manuscript. I also remember racing home to write if baby Sean fell asleep in his stroller while we were out, and getting up at the crack of dawn to write before they woke up. It’s interesting that I started At Yellow Lake when my kids were 16 and 19. I started teaching and had stopped writing for a few years, but my children (as well as my husband) were very happy with my “return” to writing. Hannah was probably the first reader of At Yellow Lake, although she hasn’t read the entire book yet, and Sean had this wonderfully calming phrase—“You’ll do it, Mum”--that kept me going when the writing was hard and the initial rejections rolled in.

What are you working on?
My latest book is still in the very early stages. It’s written, but my agent has just submitted it, so I don’t have much to say about it at this point. It’s another stand-alone YA book, set in the US, about a troubled British boy who uncovers some disturbing secrets when he’s sent away to stay with his aunt in a small Iowa town. Hope it sells!

Can you describe where you write? (The space, your routine, any nicknacks you have to have nearby, anything that makes your space unique, etc...)

You would be very disappointed in my space, Rhena! It’s just a desktop computer on a cluttered table in the corner of the dining room (which also serves as clothes drying area, cat feeding area, the place to stack old newspapers and books...) There are some pictures of the lake on the wall, though, as well as a lovely photo of my dad, who died 20 years ago, standing on a beach near my house in England. Dad’s picture may be inspiring me, but nothing else about my writing space does, except for that the fact that it is “mine”, and I’m very grateful for the time that I have to spend there.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Honeybee update.

The bees are flying. And if you look very closely at some of these pictures, you might be able to see little yellow-ish sacks of pollen on the backs of some of their hindlegs. See them? Although, that might also be sawdust, which apparently some bees were mistaking for pollen in these last weeks of winter, when it was warm enough for them to fly but hadn't been warm for long enough for the trees and flowers and plants to be producing pollen and nectar. But they're only nibbling at the pollen patty that we put in their hive, so they must be getting something from somewhere these days.

Little A is obsessed with the bees right now. Whenever we come and go through the backyard, she says, "Oh, bees wake up!" or "Oh, bees sleepin'" depending on whether they are out of their hive or not.

We spend what feels like hours -- but is more like minutes -- drawing bees on the blackboard and on the sidewalk.

"See?" I tell her. "The bees go to flowers and get nectar and pollen and then they take it back to their hive and they make honey!"

This gets repeated many times a day. It's sort of a "story" for her and it serves to assure me that keeping bees in the backyard is helping her learn something. Something about production? Or supply and demand? Or the natural world? Or the cycles of the seasons? Well, something more than just this:

Whenever I get close to the hives without a bee suit on -- such as when I took the pictures above -- Little A tells me "Be really careful. Stand back. Like me. Bees get in your face. Stand back. Like me. Like me!" And eventually I must respond to her commands and move to the other side of the yard with her. She hasn't yet been stung -- we don't think, anyway -- but she knows from our own warnings that we need to be cautious around the bees. Respectful.

The other evening when we were drawing the bees on the chalkboard and when I got to the end of my explanation of how they make honey, A turned to me and said, "Share?"

"Yeah," I said, half-laughing. "They sort of share with us."

"And we sort of just take it from them," I said under my breath.

It's a tricky dynamic, I suppose, and not one I'm likely to get into with a two year old. We sort of help the bees, but mostly we just contain them, and they're really industrious so they make a lot of honey -- more than they could ever eat -- and so we take the "extra." (Or we plan to -- we'll have to see how they do this year.)

But she's just two and we're talking a lot (A LOT) about sharing these days, so the lessons about symbiotic versus parasitic relationships and insect self-awareness and top-down and bottom-up power structures are going to have to wait.

In the meantime, we'll eat honey. Fingers crossed.