Please allow me to introduce myself – I’m a writer…
… because of four talented authors: Louise Fitzhugh, Margaret Laurence, Constance Beresford-Howe and Louise Penny.
When I was a young girl I read Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and instantly connected with Harriet.
Harriet wanted to be a writer, but was too unsure of herself to tell anyone of her secret dream. I felt like I was coming alive when I worked on writing assignments in elementary school and even won a few awards for my prose. There was another hopeful writer in my class, a dreamy boy named John Gould. I had to share one of those awards with him. And when he became a Giller Prize finalist many, many years later I sent him an email that started off with “Congratulations to my Grade 3 creative writing prize co-winner …”
What John and the rest of my Grade 3 classmates didn’t know was that I did more than just read about Harriet – I copied her, even though she was much older than me. I created my own spy route. Every day after school I’d go home, get my secret notebook, hop on my bicycle and ride around the neighbourhood to spy on people. I wrote copious notes about what the neighbours were doing and saying; a spy job made much easier in the summer months when everyone left their windows open. I kept track of how many times the bus driver didn’t slow down at the crosswalk at the end of our street. I learned how to use words to describe the horrific stench that came from the sewer grate on Mt. Pleasant on a hot humid summer day. I wrote a cute little doggy love story about my friend Missy’s purebred Basset Hound and how she kept escaping for carnal trysts with a black and white mutt. (Missy’s dog’s next planned litter didn’t go exactly to plan; all the pups were black and white, instead of Basset brown. Confession time – those pups closely resembled our black and white mutt named Scamper … he came with me for my bike rides … sorry Missy’s mother!)
Harriet was raised and loved by her nanny, Ole Golly. Her parents were too busy working to play an active role in her early childhood. My parents were both doctors with full practises and they also taught at the University of Toronto’s medical school. They did their best as parents, but I spent most of my time with hired live-in housekeepers. There were several of them, but one was special - Mrs. M. I loved that woman dearly. Her shoulder was the safest place in the world to cry. She stopped doing whatever she was doing when I wanted someone to listen to me. She gave me sound advice when I needed it and she delivered that advice in a way that a little girl would be able to hear and understand it. Harriet’s Ole Golly got married and moved away from Harriet’s home and her parents didn’t bring in anyone to replace her, because they and Ole Golly felt Harriet was old enough to take care of herself. Mrs. M died and my parents didn’t hire anyone to replace her, because they felt I was old enough to take care of myself.
Yeah, Harriet was a kindred spirit.
I entered high school believing that somehow, someway, I was going to be a writer. In Grade 9 we were given a creative writing assignment. I put my heart and soul into it and felt immense pride when I handed it in. I was barely a teenager at the time so I’m sure it was probably laden with teen angst. I wish I still had that assignment. I’d love to know what I wrote in it. I don’t have it because I burned it. My teacher handed it back to me with this comment written on the top page – “0% - these pages aren’t even good enough to go on the roll beside my toilet”. I was devastated. I started to accept the dire reality of what my mother had told me – I’d have to get “a real job”. (In my mother’s vernacular the only “real” jobs were: doctor, lawyer, judge, accountant – preferably on track to become the VP Finance of an international corporation, dentist or maybe veterinarian.)
I discovered Margaret Laurence when I was in Grade 10 and her The Diviners was making a huge splash. Most public schools in Toronto banned it because it was considered “blasphemous” (a lot of the characters used swear words), “obscene” (some of the characters had sex) and because it championed independent females. I was in a private school, so the public school ban didn’t apply to us. The Diviners wasn’t on the syllabus, but it was on the list of books that we could choose from for our major term paper.
I probably chose to read and write about The Diviners because of the controversy, but my reasons for choosing it don’t really matter. I read it and I loved it! I still think Morag Gunn is one of the best female characters ever to appear in Canadian literature. Being in a private school, where everyone’s parents knew anyone who was anyone, one of the girls in my group knew someone who knew someone who put us in touch with Ms. Laurence and she agreed to let us come out to her home in Lakefield to interview her. I was so in awe of her that I couldn’t speak. The other girls asked intelligent questions. Ms. Laurence gave insightful answers. Before I knew it, the interview was over and we were all standing up to say goodbye. As we were leaving Ms. Laurence turned to me and asked me if I had any questions. I could only think of one – “Why do you write?” She smiled, said “only a writer would ask a question like that” and then asked the other girls to wait in the car. She was the first person I ever told of my intense desire to someday be a writer, that when I thought of other careers nothing else felt right. She encouraged me and even invited me to send her some of my work if I wanted to. I wanted to. And I did. She never suggested that any of it wasn’t good enough to be wrapped around a roll beside her toilet. In fact, she suggested the opposite – she encouraged me to keep writing. I wish I’d listened more carefully to her and believed her words more. But I didn’t. I spent another two years with the toilet roll English teacher. I pushed the dream down. To be more accurate, I stomped on it until it was pulverized and then flushed it out of my thoughts (and hopes).
Then came university – Ryerson, Radio and Television Arts. One of the elective English courses offered was History of the Novel I … and II … and III. I took all three. They were taught by a miniature little woman named Constance Beresford-Howe. Most of the students moaned when she handed out the required reading list at the beginning of each term. I got excited. Ms. Beresford-Howe introduced me to so many authors who I’d never heard of. I read and read and read – and loved it. And her enthusiasm for well written stories was contagious. She’d get up and excitedly pace at the front of the classroom whenever she was discussing one of her favourite authors or passages. She re-awakened my love of books – my love of writing.
Then I graduated and got a not-real, but not as unreal as writing, job. I became a television producer. It was fun. We shot in exciting places like Australia, South Africa, Las Vegas, and the Caribbean.
We drove cars off cliffs and blew things up, like the field in Puslinch, Ontario, that became a battlefield in Vietnam for one long night. The hours were insane. The pay was good. Most of the people I worked with were characters in the extreme. But I knew it wasn’t enough for me. So I started writing.
I wrote a screenplay that was produced. That felt good.
I wrote a romance (under a pseudonym) that was published by an American publishing house and reprinted in Europe. I liked the royalty cheques.
With those minor successes under my belt I screwed up my courage and wrote what I’d always really wanted to write – a mystery. After many many rejections and rewrites things got interesting with a publisher. Then things got complicated, business-wise, and I didn’t know what to do. I wondered what Canada’s most successful mystery author would do in my situation and discovered that Louise Penny had also graduated from Ryerson’s Radio & Television Arts program, so I fired off an email to her, RTA grad to RTA grad, explained my business quandary and asked for her advice.
I didn’t really expect her to reply, but it was worth a shot. She replied the same day and gave me some great advice. I followed that advice and all of a sudden everything started to fall into place.
I started writing a new mystery that I hoped would be the first in a series – the Lee Smith Mystery series. A top British literary agent offered me representation. He got me a three book deal with a British publisher. Those three Lee Smith Mystery series books are now available as e-books and paperbacks worldwide. And a foreign rights agency has started to strike deals with publishers in a couple of countries for the foreign translation rights to the books.
I still have to pinch myself to believe it sometimes – I am a writer.
Ms. Fitzhugh introduced me to a character that I connected with in so many ways. Harriet helped me learn how to really pay attention to the world around me so that I could recreate it with words. Ms. Laurence encouraged me and made me think the dream might be possible. Ms. Beresford-Howe unknowingly helped me fall in love with books and writing again. Ms. Penny treated me like the professional I felt I was pretending to be.
And the best part?
I get to hang out with Mrs. M again. She’s come back to life as a character in Lee’s stories – she’s Lee’s Auntie Em.