When I was in my 20s, my mom and I set out on a road trip to attend the annual Santa Barbara Writers Conference, held in Montecito, California, a small and wealthy community now home to Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, not to mention the Queen (Oprah Winfrey).
We’d seen an advertisement in Writer’s Digest magazine and were drawn by its list of speakers, as well as the ‘regulars’ who hung out at the conference such as Ray Bradbury, Charles Schulz and Elmore Leonard.
Afraid of flying, my mom drove everywhere. Off we set in her Toyota Corolla for the five-day journey. To say we had different approaches to car drives is to understate the situation.
I like the idea of wide-open trails a whole lot more than the reality of sitting in a car, day after endless day, while long drives are as natural to my mom as the cigarettes she smoked, windows rolled down as I coughed up resentment in the passenger seat.
My fingers would twitch toward the radio dial; she’d suffer in silence for a song or two, before turning it off. “Let’s have some peace and quiet,” was a phrase I came to resent, as much as the ‘cheap and cheerful’ diner meal, which in those days had no vegetarian options unless you were happy to pick the bacon off your Dennys BLT.
My mother’s authority was indisputable, so she won every decision. It would take me another ten years to realize – and leverage – the 50% shared Scottish stubbornness gene.
We set off on a diagonal from Detroit, through Illinois and Missouri, skirting the top of Oklahoma and Texas, into the glorious South-West.
My mom and Roger, her long-term partner, drove various routes from Brampton to LA over the years; he liked to buy old British sportscars in California (no winter road salt = no rust) and drive them back to sell.
I’d once made the trek with Roger when I was fourteen, learning to drive really fast on a go-kart racetrack in LA, memories of which came flooding back as I binge-watched Formula One on Netflix the past couple weeks.
Given my age, we didn’t bring back a second car, but Roger had previously taught me to drive in his MGTB, so I took driving turns through the long, empty patches of dessert past TheDay of the Triffids plants that stared at us with ill-intent.
My mom and I are both fans of Navajo jewellery and design, so there was never any disagreement when the car slid off the road in the direction of any and all artisan shops, or about taking extra time to explore the architecture and galleries in Santa Fe, or the breathtaking drive around the Grand Canyon.
West from there into Vegas for a crazed 30 hours playing the slots and seeing the sights, before channeling our inner Hunter S Thompson and motoring down the I-15 into Santa Barbara, passing endless white crosses where unlucky drivers had met their final match. “I’m Leaving Las Vegas //Lights so bright //Palms sweat, blackjack //On a Saturday Night. . .”
The Santa Barbara Writers Conference was held at the famed Miramar Hotel (until 2000 when the hotel closed). On a budget, we stayed at a nearby motel, where one morning I memorably slept through an earthquake of 6.8 magnitude while my mother clung to a doorframe and yelled at me to wake the fuck up.
We became fast friends with two women from South Carolina. From day to night there were talks, and workshops and socializing, and we loved every minute of it.
And suddenly a week had passed, and it was time to leave, this time across the bottom of the US, the long, wide slog that is Southern Texas where we lasted one hour in our motel room before convincing each other that the mystery movement at the top of the curtains had to be a giant snake.
We high-tailed it out of there, driving all night past ghostly little deer in the headlights to collapse in a heap in a New Orleans motel late the following afternoon.
I still prefer train journeys to cars, but I adore roadie movies, from the quirky (Little Miss Sunshine), to the female buddy movies (Thelma and Louise) to the off-beat (early Jim Jarmusch).
But I’ll long treasure memories of that road trip with my mom, especially now as her memories slide.
She came back from that LA trip to take the Humber School for Writers correspondence course, find an agent, publish a novel at age 65. The intensity of caring for Roger’s early on-set Alzheimer’s followed by her own health problems, robbed her of the opportunity to continue writing.
But, despite the failing cognition, she still remembers she’s a published author and that we had a grand party to celebrate, and just how hard it was to achieve her dream.
When I mention my upcoming novel, Pull Focus, she’s newly surprised and faintly accusatory – “why is this the first I’m hearing of it?” But she’s always delighted at the news. I looking forward to receiving the print ARCs soon, so I can put a copy – with its dedication to her – in her hands and says thanks again, mom. I love you.
I might have slept through that LA earthquake, but the trip shook the foundations of my life in ways it would take me a few years to fully appreciate.
I co-launched a literary magazine, McGill Street Magazine, with fellow attendees from a writing workshop taught by Austin Clarke, who so kindly invited us to meet at his house. (Yes, on McGill Street.)
I also joined the Thursday Group, a writing group that grew out of UofT, made an entire new group of friends, broke up with my live-in partner, and slowly took one step after another – magazine publisher, programmer, writer, producer – which found me eventually back in LA for a while, all those years after my go-karting extravaganza. California captured my imagination young and has never let go.
A through-line should connect the elements in a story to each other, and ultimately to the ending which needs to be, as Aristotle said, surprising yet inevitable. However circuitous the journey, each step is grounded in the beginning.
We’ve all heard the saying that if your passion hasn’t driven you to achieve your goal by the age of thirty, you never will. Such crap. The reality is people have all kinds of responsibilities that take up space, and starting lines are staggered.
That’s certainly true for women with children, people who emigrate from one country to another, people who are poor, people who write in a language that’s not their first. In short, all but the privileged few, and thank goodness for that. A lifetime of experience brings richness and texture to writing, and to art.
On this International Women’s Day, I wish us all a glorious exploration of personhood and self-expression, in whatever form that takes and at whatever age.
The lasting memory from the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference came from a talk by writer Sue Grafton. She shared letters she wrote to her father, in which she anguished that one novel manuscript after another was being rejected (although she was successful as a screenwriter).
“Write the story that moves you, that brings you excitement on the page,” he told her. “Not something to seek approval from the writing community.”
Her next attempt was A is for Alibi. Her books would go on to spend an aggregate of 400 weeks on the NYT Bestseller list and sell millions of copies. California dreaming, indeed.
Stratford Festival has announced they intend to produce plays with real live audiences (yay!). They’re building large, open-sided canopies on the terrace of Festival Theatre and the new Tom Patterson Theatre. Seating will be in pods, able to expand based on public health guidelines (and audience confidence). Performances will also be streamed online – ultimately the future of eventing, I think, given the accessibility issues that streaming helps ameliorate. Stratford’s move hearkens back to their early days, when the first seasons were presented under a tent.
The London Book Fair, scheduled for June 29-July 1st, is hoping to host live events. Meanwhile, Jaipur Literature Festival, held an enormously successful virtual edition in February with over 50,000 people from across the world registering a total of 180 sessions and performances, with 450 speakers and performers from more than 20 countries.
TIFF is celebrating International women’s day all month long with movies from female filmmakers.
News & Gossips.
Firekeeper’s Daughter, the debut YA novel by Angeline Boulley described by the author as an “Indigenous Nancy Drew,” is generating huge buzz in advance of its March 16th release, with an initial print run of 250,000 copies and a film adaption by the Obamas for Netflix.
The idea first came to Boulley, 55, when she was 18 but it wasn’t until decades later that she carved out the time to write out the story. Like writers the world over, she was unhappy with her first draft, and began extensive rewrites while reading books about craft. A former Director of the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education, she often wrote grant proposals and this process of needing to tell an engaging story helped develop her writing skills. Given how many fundraising proposals I’ve written myself over the years, I could relate!
Four book-to-screen adaptations picked up Golden Globes on February 28th including Nomadland (best dramatic film and best director for Chloé Zhao), The Queen’s Gambit (best miniseries or TV movie, and for best actress for Anya Taylor-Joy), The Mauritanian based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s 2015 prison memoir Guantánamo Diary (Jodie Foster for best supporting actress), and I Know This Much is True (Mark Ruffalo for best actor in TV limited series or movie).
I was delighted to receive my pre-ordered copy of Kate Quinn’s The Rose Code last week in the mail. I read her earlier novels The Huntress and The Alice Network around the clock until they were finished. Her newest book, about women code breakers in the secretive world of Bletchley Park, is receiving great reviews. I love historical novels, and her extensive research is evident in the writing.
Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James is leaving Vintage Books (part of the Penguin Random House conglomerate) to a new imprint at indie publisher Sourcebooks – and taking her bestselling books with her. The new imprint will focus on “entrepreneurial female authors…taking and keeping control of their own narrative.” Publisher Pamela Jaffe says, “we are inviting readers and influencers to take a decisive role in the creation of this new imprint.”
And speaking of Penguin Random House, they’ve recently launched Ahab, a global online casting platform for voiceover actors. Originally used internally for creating audiobooks, PHR has opened it to the public; a one-stop shop to help with voiceover casting, whether that’s podcasts or animation or documentaries or videogames. More than 8,500 actors from 67 countries speaking 107 languages and in a total of 115 accents have already joined the platform; 66% of the current talent pool are union members. An interesting option given the recent proliferation of podcast creators.
Bye for now. Thank you for joining me for this fifth issue of Letterbox.