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Week Sixteen

May 26, 2013 | Alissa York | Comments (1)

Fellow writers and readers, this is my last week as Writer in Residence at the Toronto Public Library, and so I welcome you to the final instalment of Three Things. First, though, I'd like to say a heartfelt thank-you to the management and staff of the North York Branch, as well as to all those who submitted work to the program, participated in the various workshops and events, and tuned in to this weekly blog. It's been a great four months!

And so, without further ado, this week's offerings: "Safe Crossing?", "Laps" and "Dawn Chorus."


Safe Crossing?


One of my favourite authors is Wallace Stegner; I love both his non-fiction and his fiction. This week I was reading his wise and wonderful novel, Crossing to Safety, when I was struck by a scene wherein the narrator, Larry Morgan, almost loses his beloved wife during the birth of their first child. Consider his response when a friend inquires as to the health of the new mother:

"'What happened? Is it over? Is she all right?'

'The baby's born,' I said. 'I think it's a girl. I don't care what it is, so long as she's rid of it.'"

Imagine being that girl, that daughter. Of course it's not fair to blame a newborn baby for anything, but a great deal of human behaviour isn't fair. If I were to write a story from the point of view of such a girl/woman, I would begin with the following questions:

1) How long does it take her father to forgive her?

2) Does he ever really take her to his heart?

The tenor - indeed the whole direction - of the narrative would depend on the response to that second question. If it was affirmative, I'd be inclined to centre the story on the moment when the father relents. If it was negative, I'd focus on the daughter's latest and most desperate bid for his love.




Recently, while waiting at a light on the Bathurst streetcar, I watched a handful of teenagers running laps around a school track. It was after school hours; in other words, these were kids who wanted to be there. Every one of them was fit, determined-looking, clad in the appropriate streamlined gear. Needless to say, I began to imagine a different kind of kid - an ungainly outcast whose carries his body like a burden, who, even if his parents could afford to get him the right running shoes, wouldn't know which brand to buy.

What if this kid found himself drawn to the ritual discipline of the track? He wouldn't dare risk getting laughed at. He'd run his clumsy laps at night.

Picture him grappling up the wire mesh fence, falling back to knock himself breathless, recovering and climbing again. Imagine him setting off at a sad pace, halting every hundred metres or so to stand gasping, hands on his knees. You have to love a pathetic runner. (Think of Will Bird in Joseph Boyden's unforgettable novel Through Black Spruce, shuffling hung-over down country roads, jogging himself sober, jogging himself sane.)

And speaking of love, surely we can't leave our midnight track star turning circles in the dark alone. For some reason, I see a girl with a sketchbook - a girl from a nearby school who neither mocks nor pities our panting hero, but is content to keep him company, drawing quietly in the bleachers while he runs.


Dawn Chorus


More than once during the past week I woke at first light to the sound of the robin outside my window enthusiastically greeting the day. The dawn chorus is a moving and mysterious natural phenomenon, so imagine my shame when (again, more than once) I jammed in some earplugs and tried to catch another hour's sleep.

First light can be a very creative time. On one of those early mornings when sleep proved elusive, I began to conceive of a character who greets the cheerful robin (and his chattering house sparrow buddies?) with an even less poetic response than my own.  Picture a man at the end of his tether yelling "shut your beaks" before slamming his window shut. Doubtless he has his reasons. Perhaps the last thing he wants to be is awake.

At some point in my musings, the term "dawn chorus" (lovely in and of itself) got me thinking about the theatrical convention of the Greek Chorus - a group of nameless, often faceless (i.e. masked) actors who speak with a unified voice. In general, the chorus acts as a kind of collective commentator, often articulating elements of the narrative that the central characters cannot: misunderstandings, secrets, fears, flashes of insight. Perhaps those avian voices have a similar effect on our angry, depressive hero. Not auditory hallucinations, exactly - more like a melodic evocation of painful memories and existential angst.

The inevitable circadian return of the dawn chorus suggests a pleasing narrative structure: imagine a story that unfolds over the course of a single twenty-four hour period, and begins and ends with the same one-word sentence: "Dawn." The challenge would be to conjure up the set of circumstances that could alter the significance of that word (and with it, that moment) for our protagonist. The first dawn fills him with dread. The second one, on the other hand . . .

Week Fifteen

May 19, 2013 | Alissa York | Comments (0)

Welcome back to Three Things, faithful reader. This week's fictional leads: "Conversion," "Shell" and "Leave Me."




This week I had the great pleasure of meeting playwright/author/activist Eve Ensler, and hearing her speak about her stunning new memoir, In the Body of the World. The book is a raw, insightful, deeply moving account of Ensler's recent experience with  uterine cancer, as well as her advocacy work for the victims of violence against women in Congo. Ensler writes (and speaks) with remarkable candour and clarity about what she calls her "cancer conversion." While she wouldn't wish it on her worst enemy, her recent ordeal has resulted in a profound new approach to life.

The book and its author got me thinking (and feeling!) deeply in several directions, one of which led to an idea for a short story. In my own work, I've long been interested in the "up side" of injury, particularly the manner in which can shed new light on other conflicts and concerns. Ensler's cancer conversion made me consider the propensity of illness to do the same.

I began to conceive of a character who has always been "the capable one" in the family; I saw him laid low, weakened to the point of dependency on his "dependents." Then I began to imagine the ways in which those dependents (wife? kids? feckless little brother?) might grow into the space he leaves vacant through his illness. I gave some thought to my patient's conversion too. (Maybe the story is even told from his bedridden point of view.) How does the evolution of his formerly helpless loved ones affect him? Is he frightened for (or of) them? Does even a small part of him come to appreciate the new status quo?


A side note: often when I meet with developing/emerging writers, we end up discussing the topic of fear. Writing about the human condition requires that we venture into dark corners, that we write through pain, rather than around it. It can be terrifying to take that journey, and just as scary to share one's findings with the world. In both cases, one could scarcely hope for a more inspiring role model than Eve Ensler.




"Turtle Hit by Car Airlifted 400 km for Medical Care"

Those of you who are familiar with my work will know this is just the kind of headline to catch my eye. It's a heart-warming article: Windsor pilot Rick Woodall, a volunteer with animal rescue group Pilots N Paws, transports the injured creature from Sarnia to the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre in Peterborough, thereby saving its life.

If I were to write a fictional story based on this true-life tale, I take as my starting point the following quote of Woodall's:

"'When I found out it was a turtle, my daughter insisted the turtle needed to fly.'"

Okay, so maybe there's a fictional daughter too (let's call here Eve, in honour of Ms. Ensler). I see her as twelve years old - part sullen teenager, part little girl.

Where's her mother? She left on a voyage of self-discovery over a year ago; her emails are few and far between.

Where's Eve's father? Sitting across from her at the kitchen table, locked away inside himself, impossible to reach.

The turtle is what they've both been waiting for. Not only does Eve beg/bully her dad into transporting it to the trauma centre, she insists on coming along. Consider what might pass between them in that cockpit, what the pair of them might share.

Here's another line that struck me:

"'I didn't know it existed,' [Woodall] said of the turtle trauma centre. 'And to be honest, I didn't know so many people were working so hard to save turtles.'"

Imagine a story that begins with the knock on their door (the neighbour in tears, the bloodied turtle in her arms), and ends with Eve's dad keeping out of the way while dedicated volunteers minister to the poor bewildered beast. Imagine Eve standing at the heart of the action, her hand on the turtle's shell. See how she turns to look at her father? How that look cracks him open wide?


Leave Me


This week I was riding the Bloor subway line when I chanced to observe a brief unhappy scene. A girl of perhaps six years old was travelling with a woman who looked to be her grandmother. When they approached their stop, the girl rose and went to stand by the closest door. Without a word, the grandmother stood and walked to the far door, leaving the child standing alone. It was the look on the girl's face when she realized that got me, a flash of abject fear. She scurried to join her grandmother, who ignored her pointedly, stepping off the subway car without looking back.

I had witnessed a small, seemingly routine act of abandonment - a quotidian power play. As I sat with the emotional echo of the scene, the girl - or what little I knew of her - began to take on a fictional life of her own.

What if her fear turned inside out one day (when she was eight? nine?) and became anger? What if, instead of flying to her grandmother's side, she sat back down and called the old woman's bluff? Alone on the subway for the first time, where would she go? Is there perhaps an unstable parent out there somewhere? Does the memory his/her chaotic love hold out more promise than the grandmother's iron control?

Week Fourteen

May 9, 2013 | Alissa York | Comments (1)

Welcome back, fellow writers and readers. This week's triple-take on the fictional "leads" that surround us: "Final Words," "Natural Defences" and "Mind the Gap."


Final Words


This week I had the pleasure of watching the eighties dystopian classic Blade Runner for the first time since, well, the eighties. I'm definitely less inured to on-screen violence than I was back then, but I enjoyed the film immensely all the same - especially the penultimate scene wherein the humanoid "replicant" Roy Batty elects to spare his would-be destroyer in the person of Blade Runner (replicant killer) Rick Deckard.

Like all replicants of his class, Batty has a lifespan of four years - a short period of time that's almost up. Rather than taking revenge on the man who killed his three close friends and tried to kill him, he chooses to spend his last few minutes attempting to effect a meaningful communion.

Imagine being stuck with an enemy in your final hour - someone who had done you a deep and lasting wrong. Would you find your way to forgiveness if it meant not dying alone? How much would you share of yourself once there was nothing left to lose?

Plenty of material here for a short story - maybe even a novel, if the protagonist and antagonist have known each other for a long time.


Natural Defences


Recently, while re-reading the fascinating book, Tropical Nature, by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata, I was struck by the notion that certain plants evolve defences against insects and other "predators" that ironically render them more attractive to us. The mouth-watering scent of basil denotes the presence of a chemical that interrupts the hormonal development of various insects; the aromatic oil in sage inhibits the digestive bacteria of horses and other grazing animals; the enzyme papein, a common ingredient in commercial meat tenderizers, causes the mouths of over-eager pineapple and papaya thieves to bleed.

The idea of "natural" defences that reward some while repelling others got me thinking along narrative lines. I began to imagine a less than likable protagonist: Gert, an aging, acid-tongued woman who runs her own fresh herb business and prefers the company of aromatic plants to that of her fellow human beings. The story begins as a certain thick-skinned gentleman comes calling in search of a rare hybrid of Rosemary - one too pungent for most . . .


Mind the Gap


"'Sheer terror' as 4-Year-Old Falls into Toronto Subway Gap"

I don't mind admitting I felt a shiver of terror myself when I read this headline. Imagine if a child in your charge . . . it doesn't bear thinking about.

Except that fiction writers have to think about all aspects of the human condition. Lorrie Moore's short story, "Terrific Mother" (from the collection Birds of America) tells the tale of Adrienne, a single thirty-five-year-old who accidentally drops her neighbour's baby. When the baby dies, Adrienne loses much of what she knows about how to live. It's a scary, gutsy, deeply moving piece of fiction - one I will never forget.

But back to our real-life story, in which, thankfully, the child was spared. Here are the bare bones of the article:

"Four-year-old Ava Buckareff is hardly aware, but her mother Julie is holding her little girl a little tighter after a terrifying experience on the subway.

"'I hugged her. I held her. I cried for 45 minutes. Just the possibility of what could have happened,' said Julie.

"Ava was on her way home with her aunt and her older brother, Ethan. When she stepped towards the open door, she fell between the subway train and the platform.

"'She stepped in the gap and slid full through. You could only see one arm sticking up holding onto the platform. And her head,' said Ethan.

"'There's a moment of sheer terror, right,' said Esther Buckareff, the girl's aunt. . . . She grabbed her niece by the arm and hoisted her onto the train just seconds before the doors closed. 'It never crossed my mind the space was that big.'"

If I were to write a fictional story inspired by this real-life close call, I would be inclined to make the daughter an only child, thereby intensifying the potential loss.

Now that there's only one child, a key question comes to mind: Does the little girl remind the aunt of herself when she was little? Perhaps they're both dreamy and distractible by nature, in contrast to the sister/mother, who always has things under control. Is the mother regularly hard on them both for being "away with the faeries"?  Does the aunt ever fantasize about taking her sister's little girl away for real?

Not a pretty story - at least not to begin with, but then many good stories aren't. Come to think of it, the beginnings of this disturbing tale could dovetail nicely with the fictional lead explored in "Selfish Jean," from the twelfth instalment of this blog . . .




Week Thirteen

May 1, 2013 | Alissa York | Comments (0)

Welcome back, gentle reader. This week's Three Things: “The Guest,” “Thinking Big” and "Spruces."


The Guest


Recently, while listening to The Story from Here on CBC Radio, I heard a chilling cautionary tale about a sixty-seven-year-old woman who fell prey to an opportunistic couple. (To listen, click on the April 24th episode). Characterized by her niece as good-hearted and shy with the mental capacity of a twelve-year-old, Aunt Sandra can't have known what she was in for when she allowed Gail Benoit and her family to move in. Under the guise of caring for her, they kept her half-starved and captive, and emptied her bank account.

While it might seem more natural to tell a related fictional tale from the victim's point of view, I found myself wondering about the motivation behind such a crime. The cycle of abuse and addiction seemed an obvious place to start, but where to go from there?

In the true story, Gail Benoit brings a boyfriend and two kids with her, but my fictional interloper comes alone. Maybe she starts out wielding power over her victim, but finds herself yielding to kinder impulses along the way. How does her prisoner manage to win her over? Is there something about the girlish old woman that reminds her of a younger, more innocent self?


(An unsettling connection: I missed the beginning of the story on the radio. Only later, when I looked up the podcast, did I learn that Gail Benoit is the selfsame dog thief whose tale of fraud and cruelty served as a fictional lead in week six of this blog . . .)


Thinking Big


Earlier this week, a headline (and accompanying photo!) caught my fiction writer's eye:

Giant Egg Cracks $100K at Christie's Auction

It just gets weirder as one reads on:

"A massive, partly fossilized egg laid by a now extinct elephant bird has sold for more than double its estimate at a London auction."

Partly fossilized? I asked myself. What about the rest of it? Can it still be broken? Then what?

"Christie's auction house said Wednesday that the 30-centimetre long, 23-centimetre diameter egg fetched £66,675 ($104,475). . . . and was sold to an anonymous buyer over the telephone after about 10 minutes of competitive bidding."

I began to imagine that successful bidder-his racing heart, the slippery smartphone in his sweaty hand. What drove him to keep upping his price? Who on earth is that enormous egg for?

"Elephant birds were wiped out several hundred years ago. The oversized ovum, laid on the island of Madagascar, is believed to date back before the 17th century."

Hm, I thought, maybe part of my fictional take unfolds in 16th century Madagascar.

Maybe the egg's intended owner is a young PhD student with more time for the history of science than for love.

And maybe, just maybe, my story braids together three narrative threads: the lovesick bidder; the thesis-obsessed student; and the mighty elephant bird herself . . . 





This week, while reading the lovely novel Ru, by Kim Thúy, I was struck by the following line:

"Photos could not preserve the soul of our first Christmas trees."

Thúy's narrator speaks of "branches gathered in the suburban woods of Montreal"; my own memory, however, led me to a decidedly non-suburban forest in northern Alberta, not far from the town where I was born.

We were like a family in a fairytale: a lovely, golden-haired mother; two small, bright-eyed children; a woodsman of a father, complete with black beard and axe. The setting too was magical: snow-laden evergreens as far as the eye could see. Back then no one-or at least no one we knew-considered the ecological ramifications of chopping down trees. We had simply driven out of town, turned down a wooded side road and pulled over where the pickings looked good.

I remember the way we felt that night, the four of us gliding together through the trees. I remember my mother urging my brother and I to choose, helping us find a way to agree. Most of all, I remember the heft of the axe. I was perhaps five, my brother, six, yet each of us got to deliver a single blow. I can still feel the thrill of that handle resounding against my palms.

For some reason, this memory didn't surface alone; it brought with it a second snowy scene. Family friends of ours-lets call them the Spruces-lived on a sprawling farm some miles from town. I can't remember how many Spruce kids there were-only that they formed a kind of happy pack. There was a pond on their land. Our two families skated there once-all of us, even the moms and dads. I thought we'd have to quit when it got dark, but Mr. Spruce sent his sons to cut dried bulrushes from the margin, and soon each of us held a flaming torch.

It can be difficult to see clearly when approaching material this close to home. If I were to attempt a story based on those two nights, I would start where the feeling runs deepest: a pair of small hands trusted first with a blade, then with the glory of fire.







Week Twelve

April 21, 2013 | Alissa York | Comments (0)

Hello again, fellow writers and readers, and welcome to Three Things. This week's offerings: "Family Ties," "Her Face(s)" and "Selfish Jean."

Before we begin, a reminder to those of you within hailing distance of Toronto: don't miss the upcoming panel discussion, "Abiding Obsessions, Recurring Themes" with myself and celebrated Canadian authors, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, Nino Ricci and Rabindranath Maharaj. (Thursday April 25, 6:30 pm, North York Central Library Auditorium.)

Family Ties


I can't be the only one who spotted this gem among the week's headlines:

"Kissing cousins? Icelandic App Warns If Your Date Is a Relative"

The article takes a light approach to the topic of accidental incest:

"You meet someone, there's chemistry, and then come the introductory questions: What's your name? Come here often? Are you my cousin? In Iceland, a country with a population of 320,000 where most everyone is distantly related, inadvertently kissing cousins is a real risk."

Another writer might respond to such a narrative "prompt" by spinning a high-tech tale of star-crossed love set in the land of hot springs and volcanic rock, but it was the phrase "kissing cousins" that caught my imaginative eye. Neither the app angle nor the Icelandic setting interested me nearly as much as the idea of two people attracted not to an "opposite," but to one of their own.

I began to envision a large family reunion and two (teenage? thirty-something?) first cousins whose paths haven't crossed since they were small. One (Celeste, daughter of NGO workers) belongs to a branch of the family who forsook the home community for foreign shores; the other (Thomas, first son of a first son) stayed put to run the family farming empire alongside his pa.

Celeste and Thomas got along famously when they were toddlers; reunited, they fall for one another, hard. Sounds like a natural for a short story told from dual (duelling?) points of view. A potential structure comes to mind:

Act One: The big reunion where something begins.

Act Two: A series of love/denial/negotiation letters.

Act Three: A second, more selective reunion . . .

It can be challenging to address such delicate subject matter, but when writers do so with sincere, rather than sensationalistic motives, the results can be electric. Quebec literary icon Michel Tremblay took on the question of consensual incest in the seventies with his groundbreaking play, Bonjour Là Bonjour. It's a brilliant, enduring work, in large part because he approached a taboo subject with boundless courage and compassion.


Her Face(s)


A few days ago, I was witness to an amusing game. A young mother and her son of perhaps four years old were making faces at each other on the train. She stuck her thumbs in her ears, made antlers of her hands and crossed her eyes; he let out a yelp of pure pleasure and mirrored her with impressive accuracy. Then it was his turn. He thought for a second before presenting a hideous, lop-sided grimace unexpected from one so young. When his mom delivered her version, the pair of them dissolved into giggles. Eventually they collected themselves and began the next round.

As I continued to watch them, I was surprised by how moved I felt. Was it just because they were clearly so close? Because the "blood kin" resemblance they shared went so much deeper than their freckled skin?

In any case, I carried a fictionalized idea of them with me long after I got off at my stop. It was a rare and lovely sight: a mother and child playing together in an absorbed, unselfconscious manner amid a crowd. It occurred to me that it would have been even more unusual in times past, when parental roles were more rigidly defined.

This got me thinking about a character - a middle-aged man whose mother never fit the mould. Maybe his story begins with a scene in flashback based on the loving game I was fortunate enough to observe. Maybe it ends in a hospital room: a son faced with imminent loss visits his bedridden mother, who comforts him by crossing her eyes.


Selfish Jean

This week, while watching a PVR-ed episode of the PBS show, Nature, I was captivated as usual by the words of world-renowned naturalist, David Attenborough. This time, it was his take on the notion of the "selfish gene" (popularized in the influential bestseller by Richard Dawkins).

Beginning with ants and progressing to meerkats, Attenborough explored social systems that value the regenerative impulse over the needs of the individual, and are therefore dependent on the contributions of "non-breeding members."

Insects. Mammals. Us.

I began to imagine a pair of sisters: a "queen" who looks out for number one and has it all (kids, home, family, career); and a "worker-aunt" who provides the behind-the-scenes babysitting, shopping, typing, etc. that makes it all possible.

Can this kind of imbalance really endure? Surely there's potential here for a story that charts the evolution of "Jeanie the Lifesaver" to "Selfish Jean." 


A side note: Given the title I chose for this fictional "lead," I may also have had Practical Jean, the darkly comic novel by Canadian author Trevor Cole, in mind. (His Jean  decides to save her loved ones from the indignities of age and illness by bumping them off . . .)

Week Eleven

April 17, 2013 | Alissa York | Comments (0)

Welcome back to Three Things, gentle reader. This week's fiction leads: "The Camp," "Debbie" and "Flamenco."

The Camp


How's this for a headline with potential:

"U.S. Hermit Arrested After 27 Years in the Wild"

I'd be happy to build a short story based on that title alone, but as it turns out, the accompanying article about recluse and habitual thief Christopher Knight contains a few details to stoke the narrative flames.

For starters, imagine going years - years - without speaking to another human being:

"During questioning after his arrest, Knight said that the last verbal contact he had with another person was during the 1990s, [State Trooper Diane] Vance said. 'He passed somebody on a trail and just exchanged a common greeting of hello and that was the only conversation or human contact he's had since he went into the woods in 1986.'"

And then there's this:

"Since vanishing from his Maine home for no apparent reason and setting up camp when he was about 19, Knight sustained himself on food stolen from dozens of cottages, but his favourite target was the Pine Tree Camp [a camp for people with special needs]. . . . Why he decided to disappear in the woods remained a question. . . . Attempts to reach relatives were unsuccessful."

If I were to create a fictional hermit-thief based on Knight, I'd start with the following questions:

1) What made him take to the woods as a young man of nineteen?

2) Fellow human beings aside, is there anyone (or anything) he does talk to?

3) Where are those relatives police attempted to reach?

4) Why that particular camp? Thinking beyond practicalities, what is it about a camp for people with special needs that draws our (anti-)hero time and again? Might it have something to do with why he left home all those years ago?




This week while listening to BBC Radio on the web I heard a woman interviewed about the time she was carried away by a hurricane.

In 1961, two-year-old Pauline Branigan was playing outside at her grandparents' farm in County Tyrone, Ireland, when Hurricane Debbie swept her away. As she put it, one moment she was there, the next she was not. Little Pauline was missing for twenty-four hours before the local priest and a couple of young men found her half a mile from the farmhouse, sleeping in a potato field. I encourage you to listen to the interview (starting at the 45:45 mark); it's a strangely moving tale, and Ms. Branigan tells it charmingly.

This is rich material rife with fictional cues, but in keeping with the spirit of this blog, I'll limit myself to three: that sixteen-year-old boy who remembers hearing what could have been a baby crying and leads the priest to the lost child; the party atmosphere at the farm upon the toddler's return, including shouts of "Come back, the child has been got"; the ranks of policeman who file past the child to see "what they were searching for."

What if the boy who found her joins that line, anxious for another glimpse? And then what if his family is forced by circumstance (damage to their farm by the same hurricane?) to leave the area soon thereafter? Perhaps that bright day - the day when he found the sleeping toddler unharmed - leaves an impression so vivid as to render the next two decades bleak by comparison. And perhaps, when that toddler is twenty-two, the boy (who is now thirty-four) has the good fortune to find her again.




This week, I attended the book launch of Matadora, the new novel by former Toronto Public Library Writer in Residence, Elizabeth Ruth. In addition to an on-stage interview and reading, Elizabeth had arranged for a flamenco performance that included a singer, a guitarist and a dancer. All three performed beautifully, but it was the dancer who started a narrative in my mind.

It was her gaze more than anything - pale and unwavering, it spoke of an indomitable spirit. As I watched her stare down the room and stamp and whirl, a character came to life in my mind.

My dancer - let's call her Amy - isn't born into the tradition of Flamenco; in fact she comes to it in her late forties. It starts in the wake of yet another ugly break-up, when our heroine is trolling Facebook, envying the lives of her "friends." One woman who was a flesh-and-blood friend in high school has posted about her recent trip to Andalusia with her loving husband of twenty years. She's even linked to a video of the dancer who entertained them post-paella.

It's that video - the dancer's steely gaze, the thundering, uncompromised power of her every step - that shows Amy what she needs to do next.

Her first class is humiliating - she can scarcely manage the simplest sequence of steps. Luckily her teacher, a woman in her late sixties who can hammer the boards with the best of them, recognizes her need.

"See you next week," she tells Amy firmly at the end of class.

"I don't know." Amy hesitates at the door. "I'm not sure I'll have the time."

"You will." The teacher takes hold of her by the arm. "You cannot imagine," she says.

Amy is suddenly, inexplicably, frightened. "Imagine what?"

"How strong it makes you."


And yes, you better bet Amy comes back.



Week Ten

April 9, 2013 | Alissa York | Comments (1)

Welcome, faithful reader, to the tenth instalment of Three Things. This week's offerings: "Sourpuss," "Restless," and "Women Who Run to the Wolves."




This week while waiting to pay for a bag of lemons at the local produce stand, I chanced to overhear a heavy-set man speak the following lines into his phone:

"Was she a sourpuss today? Yeah? Well, she's got nothing to be sour about."

He moved out of my hearing, but the dialogue sample he'd provided was more than enough to pique my fiction-writer's interest. Just who is this miserable woman, I wondered, this sourpuss with "nothing to be sour about"? (Unless of course it isn't a woman. It could be spoiled pug suffering from diverticulitis, or a cranky pet macaw, known for biting - or biting off? - visitors' fingers . . .) But I digress. For now let's stick with Homo sapiens, female.

My initial premise involved an infirm mother - a woman in pain who lives at the mercy of an unfeeling son and the homecare worker he's hired. Perhaps the two of them are somehow in cahoots against her. Better yet, maybe they've gone beyond cahoots and fallen into bed together - indeed, into a kind of self-serving love.

And then I thought, No, the sourpuss isn't his mother. It's his wife.

Luckily, this poor woman didn't arrive in my mind alone; she brought with her a fourth character - perhaps even a narrator? - in the form of a troubled and, until now, absent son. A recovering addict, or so his imagined appearance would suggest. Twenty-eight years old and unknown to his family for years, he's unaware of his mother's condition until he returns home, determined to forgive the father whose cruelty sowed the seeds of self-harm, and make amends with the mother whose heart he's broken a hundred times.

This son - let's call him Terry - may have been weak when he was a kid, but years on the street have taught him how to look after himself and others. Suddenly the sourpuss has a champion. The husband and his "care-giver" mistress won't know what hit them.




The other day I passed a teenage couple performing a sad pantomime in the mall. The boy - sixteen or so and built like a chimp on tiptoe - repeatedly draped his arm over his girl. Two-thirds his size, she appeared unable (or at least unwilling) to bear its weight. They'd made a game of him claiming her, her ducking and wriggling away. The dynamic was difficult to read. Did he love her passionately, or only long to corral her? Was she playing hard to get, or was she in fact un-gettable - already gone?

Leaving the young couple to their "play," I carried on past displays of wigs, bifocals and ridiculous shoes. An ad in the window of a vitamin shop posed the following question: "Do you suffer from restless legs?"

Restless. The word combined with the scene I'd just witnessed to produce a fictional pair: the hulking boy who's never loved anything or anyone the way he loves his little girlfriend; the girl who can't wait to get away. What happens when she finally works up the nerve to wriggle away from him for good?


Women Who Run to the Wolves


This week I heard two separate pieces on CBC radio about members of the military dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. The first was a short feature on canine companions trained to help suffering soliders cope (here's the TV version); the second was a moving round-table discussion on The Sunday Edition. Together they got me thinking in a narrative vein.

As it happens, I've already dealt with the symbiotic relationship between wounded soldiers and dogs in my work: Stephen, a character in my novel, Fauna, is an infantryman on medical release who volunteers as a dog-walker at the local animal shelter. In any case, it wasn't the military angle that captured my interest so much as the thought of an animal coming to the aid of someone who's lived through war.

What I haven't written about yet is a woman I know who suffers terribly from PTSD. After years of abuse, she escaped from her violent husband, moved alone to a small town and found herself a puppy that was mostly wolf. When I met that puppy it was all grown up and as tame as it would ever be - which is to say, half-wild. There was one human being it trusted: a woman who trusted very few humans herself.

If I wrote a story about a woman based on that woman, a dog based on that dog, it would be a tale of love and perseverance. And war. Domestic, devastating war.






Week Nine

March 31, 2013 | Alissa York | Comments (0)

Welcome back, fellow fans of the written word. This week's triple threat: "Monkey Mind," "Disruptive Presence,"  and "Fatima."

Monkey Mind


This week the headline from one news story "cross-pollinated" with the image from another to get me thinking creatively about our fur-clad cousins. The resulting equation:

One angry response to the idiocy of subjecting any pet to a punishing tour schedule


one eerily "human" gaze


one narrative lead about a selfish human and his long-suffering simian companion!

At some point the Buddhist notion of the "monkey mind" entered the mix. For those who don't know, the phrase has nothing to do with how monkeys think. Picture instead the whirl of busy, often anxious, thoughts that crowd the human mind like a troop of chattering macaques in the absence of any meditative practice.

My story, however, would concern itself with both. I'd give the monkey's "owner" a voice, certainly - it's always stimulating to inhabit a mind unlike your own - but I'd also give the creature itself a say. Human "monkey mind" meets (as near as we might imagine) the real thing . . .


A side note: Remember the recent internet sensation caused by the "IKEA Monkey"? For an insightful response to the phenomenon, look no further than Canadian author, Andrew Westoll's essay, "Does Darwin the IKEA Monkey Need a Human Mother?"


Disruptive Presence


This week I was struck by the evocative beauty of a (rather long) sentence in the short story, "The Valley of Lagoons" by David Malouf (from the collection, Every Move You Make):

"And as I moved deeper into the solitude of the land, its expansive stillness - which was not stillness in fact but an interweaving of close but distant voices so dense that they became one, and then mere background, then scarcely there at all - I began to forget my own disruptive presence, receding as naturally into what hummed and shimmered all around me as into a dimension of my own being that it had taken my coming out here, alone, in the slumbrous hour after midday, to uncover."

Angus, the teenage protagonist/narrator of the story, is confident he has enough "bush sense" not to get lost - until he does. He finds his way soon enough, however; an ominous single gunshot leads him back to the hunting companion he'd prefer to leave behind. In any case, it wasn't the notion of losing one's way that captured my imagination; it was the idea of losing one's self - of shedding the sense of one's own "disruptive presence" in nature.

I began to think about the human preoccupation with the (permeable?) lines between our own lives and those of our fellow creatures. Creation stories from around the world chart the transformation of humans into animals and vice versa. So how about a creation/destruction story that follows a lost hiker through the last days of her life?

Consider the effects of fasting (deliberate or otherwise) on the human mind; liberated from its mundane task of transmuting food into fuel, the human organism is free to inhabit the world of the imagination - of story, in fact. And what about the psychological and spiritual effects of removing oneself from the constructed context of  "daily life." What elements of "self" does our hiker lose track of along the way? What does she inevitably become?




I'd heard the lovely song, "Fatima," by K'naan on the radio before, but this week marked the first time I paid attention to the lyrics: 

 . . . I fell in love with my neighbour's daughter

I wanted to protect and support her

Never mind I'm just twelve and a quarter

I had dreams beyond our border.


The narrative had me. I stopped chopping onions and stood listening, spellbound:


 . . . Fatima, Fatima, I'm in America

I make rhymes and I make them delicate

You would have liked the parks in Connecticut

You would have said I'm working too hard again.


Damn you shooter, damn you the building

Whose walls hid the blood she was spilling

Damn you country, so good at killing

Damn you feeling, for persevering.


Fatima, what did the gunman say

Before he took you away

On that fateful day?

Fatima, did he know your name

Or the plans we made

To go to New York City?


Later, I looked up a live performance on YouTube and found out about the true story behind the song. As a human being I responded strongly to all of it - the story, the song, the performance. As a writer, I was struck by three elements in particular:

1) "Fatima, Fatima, I'm in America/ . . . You would have liked the parks in Connecticut"

2) "Damn you feeling, for persevering"

3) K'naan's body language in the video, particularly the emotion evident in his hands.

I began to imagine a story about a young man making his way in the "New World," accompanied by absence/presence of his lost first love. A story in two voices, perhaps - the survivor and the ghost? Or the survivor and the new girl who steps unwittingly into the dead one's shoes?

I wouldn't make our hero a musician, but I would bless him with ability; the greater one's gifts, the greater one's potential guilt, no?  Can he find a way to love the "parks in Connecticut," even though his "Fatima" will never never see them? What about the girl he meets by the duck pond - can he let himself love her too?


Week Eight

March 25, 2013 | Alissa York | Comments (1)

Welcome to Three Things, fellow writers and readers. This week's fictional leads: "Reunion Party," "The Bouncer" and "Emergence."


Reunion Party


This week I became aware of a fascinating collaborative project between Canadian artists Vid Ingelevics and Blake Fitzpatrick entitled "Freedom Rocks: The Everyday Life of the Berlin Wall." From the project website: "The title is taken from the branding found on a bag of small Berlin Wall souvenir pieces sold in Toronto in the early 1990s. The project began with the goal of documenting the post-1989 movement of the Wall, both large full segments and small fragments, from Berlin to North America. This website functions as a nexus point for the intersection of our work with many different registers of the continuing history of the Wall in its atomized and dispersed form. The charting of the Wall as a mobile ruin has revealed an object with shifting symbolic value and power."

I was particularly struck by the idea of a "mobile ruin" - a monument which, though no longer of a piece (or even of a place), continues to evolve as a narrative hub. With this central notion in mind, I began to imagine a group of people who share a common attachment to a meaningful object - ideally one that might be dismantled and dispersed among them.

Perhaps a skeleton?

What if a group of medical (or veterinary) students were to steal a human (or canine) skeleton from the anatomy lab and share out the bones between them as part of a pact to reunite in a decade's time?

Imagine a short story (or novel?) that interweaves the night of the big reunion - complete with reassembly of the skeleton and the inevitable psycho-social complications inherent to reunions - with significant developments from each character's past. What have the members of this particular group been up to in the intervening decade? What have those bags of stolen bones seen?


The Bouncer


This week, while watching a re-run of the excellent Canadian crime series, Intelligence, I happened to notice the subtle yet convincing acting of the man who plays the bouncer at the Chickadee Club (headquarters of the show's anti-hero, Vancouver "Weed King," Jimmy Reardon). This got me thinking about a friend of mine from junior high (let's call him with Kevin) with whom I've long since lost touch.

The last time I saw Kevin, I didn't recognize him; if he hadn't said my name I would’ve unwittingly snubbed him in the street. This was partly because ten years or more had passed since we'd moved on to different high schools, and partly because he was easily twice the size he'd been when we were friends. Kevin had become a wall of muscle. He wasn't just standing on the street, he was working the door at the longest-running strip club in our coastal home town.

The whip-smart, goofy, sad-eyed kid I'd sat beside in Chem Lab had become a bouncer. What was more, when I stopped to catch up with him, it became clear that he was no longer "all there."

Like many writers, I tended to gravitate to misfits like Kevin when I was in school. Our little group of friends may have been "freaks," but we amused ourselves in fairly typical teenage ways. When we weren't trooping or lolling about in small, bored herds, we were planning, executing or recovering from parties. One such gathering, staged on a chilly, kelp-strewn beach, was the scene of Kevin's big melt-down. He'd been drinking a vile concoction dawn from every bottle in his parents' liquor cabinet, and the results were less than pretty. Suffice it to say that we looked after him - as well and as long as we could.

Somewhere amid the swim of memory, I began to conceive of a fictional bouncer and his erstwhile high school friend - perhaps a shy thirty-something guy dragged along to a bachelor party at a strip club only to find his old buddy working the door? Consider how the story of such a night might combine with a back-story based on a beach party gone wrong. Might it include a teenage boy striding drunkenly into the ice-cold ocean? Perhaps a group of soaked and frightened friends to drag him back?




How's this for a headline: "Blade Removed from N.W.T Man's Back - Three Years Later." Once again the CBC News site delivers narrative gold.

One might sprint off in any number of narrative directions from such a rich starting line; I went back in time to a corresponding memory of my own, then spun off from there into an imagined life.

The only thing more compelling than that blade lying dormant in the man's flesh is the thought of it working its way out. Consider this tidbit from the article:

"This week, he felt something different.

'My nail caught a piece of the tip of the blade that was underneath the skin and made a little sound, so that worried me,' he said.

His girlfriend, Stephanie Sayine, took a look.

''I told Billy, "There's a knife sticking out of your back." I was scared. I was ready to pull it out with tweezers,' she said."

My father, too, once came upon a foreign object in the back of a loved one. He was brushing our massive dog (code name Barnabus) when he came upon a lump. Fearing cancer, he drove Barnabus directly to the vet. Surgery revealed not tissue, malignant or benign, but a bullet. Two years previous, a farmer had shot Barnabus for barking at his sheep - three bullets in the chest, only two of which the vet had been able to retrieve. (The third lay too close to the heart.) The first miracle occurred when Barnabus somehow dragged himself the three miles back to our house without bleeding to death. The second involved the slow, steady expulsion of that hostile object from his flesh.

In recalling this extraordinary series of events, I found myself wondering for the first time ever about that farmer - or rather, about a fictional farmer who shoots a dog that's harassing his flock.

What if, instead of the heartless rage-aholic I imagined as a child, he's actually a gentle man driven to desperate measures? Perhaps his wife (a dissatisfied city girl) is horrified by his violent defence of his stock; it might even be the straw that breaks the marital camel's back.

What if she leaves him there and then? And what if, instead of dragging itself home, the wounded dog lies on the verge of the road howling until the heartsick farmer takes it in?




Week Seven

March 19, 2013 | Alissa York | Comments (0)

Welcome back to Three Things. This week's offerings: "Bag of Tricks," "Knavery's Plain Face" and "Sounding."


Bag of Tricks


Oddly enough, two of this week's fictional “leads” involve imaginative cross-pollination between British television and travel on the TTC. The first began with an eccentric-looking old woman who shared my seat on the King streetcar. Not long after she sat down, she began to root through her overstuffed handbag. She revealed no end of interesting articles, including a zippered change purse full of gaudy costume rings that she proceeded to model on her knobby fingers. 

As I watched her out the corner of my eye, I suddenly recalled an episode of New Tricks, a British television drama about the London Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad. (Here's a clip of the team talking over a crime that took place in a library!)

The episode in question features a teenage girl whose mother disappeared years before; the UCOCS team finds the missing mom buried in the grave of a woman who faked her own death. The "telling" moment - the one I flashed on while sitting beside the handbag-lady - occurs when the girl receives her mother's purse, opens it and begins to grieve.

In retrospect, I suppose I was also influenced by the subconscious memory of "Found Objects," the opening chapter/story of Jennifer Egan's wonderful novel and/or collection of linked stories, A Visit from the Goon Squad. In it, the protagonist steals various items in a misguided attempt to connect with other members of the human race.

In any case, I began to imagine a bag-snatcher who steals the purse of an elderly woman not unlike my seat-mate. He usually discards everything but the cash and any valuables he can sell without undue risk; this particular bag, however, he keeps. Its contents - the costume jewellery? the photos? the grubby little doll attached to the key chain? - fascinate him in a way he can't quite understand. The bag and the particular personality it represents begin to work some kind of change in him. Does he perhaps seek out the woman to whom it belongs? Or does he go further, seeking the source of the grief (or guilt? or both?) that brought him to the precarious life he leads now . . . ?


Knavery's Plain Face

The second TV/TTC-inspired story idea began with one of those oversized promotional ads that "decorate" our busiest subway platforms. When the train I was riding on came to a stop in the station, the window across from me framed the enormous face of a sinister looking young man with partly-concealed fangs and a dribble of blood at the corner of his lip.

I've since learned that the ad was for Being Human, a British television series that features a group of supernatural flatmates. At the time, however, that larger-than-life face came to me devoid of context, save the real-life scene alongside which it was juxtaposed. Inside the subway car, a teenage couple were piled together in their seat like a pair of exhausted puppies. In the adjacent seat, another boy sat scowling. The couple were blessed with easy good looks; the friend might have been handsome once, but his face was a mask of small, shiny scars. (Had he perhaps gone through a windshield as a child?)

The girl's stop came first. She and her boyfriend kissed goodbye passionately; she acknowledged the friend with a dismissive nod. When she passed me on her way out the doors, I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke and booze – perhaps the three of them had spent the night at a house party and were now making their hung-over way home.

Once his girl was gone, the baby-faced boy shifted over to sit beside his sullen friend. They began talking, but as is so often the case in our diverse city, the language they shared was one I didn't understand. This left me free to imagine a conversation between two fictional friends. In my mind the vampire in the ad and the angry boy became one. I began to see him as an Iago of sorts, jealous of his Othello's happiness, pouring pestilence in his friend's ear in a bid to turn him against the young Desdemona in the bright pink sweatpants and Uggs.

BBC TV meets subway scene meets Shakespeare – whatever works, my fiction-loving friends.




This week I had the dubious pleasure of having my organs viewed on-screen. As I lay on the examining table with sound waves echoing through me, I began to wonder it would be like to be an ultrasound technician. I've long been fascinated by the routine intimacy of certain medical procedures - and what could be more intimate than looking at a person's insides? Imagine sitting in that dark little room with a series of semi-clad individuals who are often filled with emotion – fear or joy or even rage. Human nature being what it is, there must be some patients who behave with less than the ideal decorum. In any case, a story set in that little room would do well to include at least one such encounter that tests our technician's fortitude.

And what about her life outside that room? What if our technician (I see her as red-haired, thirtyish, Eastern European) has a husband/lover/child who’s keeping something from her - something big? Such a thematic link would call for subtle handling (nothing even close to "Sometimes she wished she could see inside David too . . ."); that said, it might well contribute the emotional resonance that would make the story sing.






Where does a fiction writer get her ideas? An overheard snippet of conversation, the cry of some unseen creature, a photo on Facebook, a scene glimpsed through the window of a passing car – these and countless other everyday occurrences might well contain the seed of a story. Three Things is a weekly blog wherein Writer in Residence Alissa York explores the narrative potential of three such phenomena encountered during the previous seven days.