Beverly Akerman talks with Open Book's Grace O'Connell (below) about her first book, the art of organizing a short fiction collection and her upcoming projects. You can find Open Book: Toronto here.
Open Book:Tell us about your new book, The Meaning of Children.
Beverly Akerman:Published by Exile Editions, six years in the making and soon to be a major motion picture, The Meaning Of Children is a collection of 14 short stories, divided into “Beginning” (first person point of view child stories), “Middle” (of those in the child bearing years) and “End” (stories of older people, or that take the long view of life). Many of the stories have won or placed in contests, some of them multiple times.
And I was just kidding about that movie thing. Well, more like hoping…
OB:How did it change your writing process to consider your narratives in relation to children and how they might view events?
BA:I didn’t start out writing for any particular theme, beyond the issues I was interested in, felt strongly about, was moved — or even obsessed — by. Then, after four or five years, I had 25 or so published stories to my credit, and I was left to try and figure out what united them — other than the fact they were written by me. I had to package them in some sensible way. I didn’t have much luck with the submission process until I hit on the current format, but you always find something in the last place you look for it… I do think writers who plan a linked or otherwise related set of stories (e.g. about people travelling the Pacific trail) will find agents and/or publishers to be receptive. But this is my first book… I had no grand plan at the outset, beyond wanting to write. And deciding that juggling the smaller universe of a short story felt way less intimidating than starting with a novel. The feedback from my readers has been pretty amazing. Touching. Heartfelt.
“I found your writing haunting and powerfully emotive, drawing on the subtleties of childhood, youth and parenthood that undermine us in strange and unexpected ways. Your writing is polished and mature, something I am always in awe of and why I got into publishing to begin with.” ~ An agent at a prominent Toronto literary agency (it was a refusal, but still).
BA:That’s an interesting question. We had this really compressed production schedule — only several weeks from acceptance to printing. So I read the book over a number of times in a very short period, which led me to think a lot about how the stories relate. And also to realize that they reflect the way both halves of my career intersect.
I worked for over 20 years in molecular genetics research. Now in biology and genetics, evolution by natural selection is as close to ‘written in stone’ as a concept can be. But the point of evolution — and selective advantage via sexual reproduction — is to produce a new generation better suited to prevailing circumstances, which change over time. And also better suited to change. So if the climate cools, for example, offspring with a warmer coat are better adapted to it and more likely to survive and go on to contribute their genes to the next generation. In other words, it’s about doing your best for your offspring, albeit in an unconscious or extra-conscious way. So children are very central to all of this, or offspring, anyway, but in a very macro way. I also had three children with my husband while I was doing all that bench work, a kaleidoscope of new experiences and feelings. The stories are micro views of that.
In terms of selecting and ordering the stories, once I hit on the idea of beginning, middle, end, it all seemed much easier. I tried not to have too many of the same type of story (I had a surfeit of “middle” stories from which to choose). I wanted also to showcase different aspects of what I can do. So there’s satire, there’s sort of fairy tale allegory, and there’s straight realism, especially in the kids-eye view stories. I would have liked a few more funny stories; a lot of my work is dark.
(One of my favourite stories is “The Hardboiled Stress of Being Santa,” but I just couldn’t see a place for it in the book. Also, it’s so Canadian — about Brian Mulroney, Karlheinz Schreiber, and scatological letters from Santa — I worried it would hurt the book elsewhere. But I’d love it if more people read it. It’s on Joyland.ca but they have one of the footnote links wrong, so I’ll point you to this version. Perhaps the perfect antidote to summer heat…)
Growing up can be really tough. Not so much physically, in my stories. More emotionally. That feeling children have when they realize their parents have feet of clay. If you manage it right (as a parent and maybe as a writer, too), you get growth.
OB:What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice turning up in your writing?
BA:The underappreciated world of women is my bailiwick. Loglines of several stories in The Meaning Of Children: a girl discovers a fear of heights as her parents’ marriage unravels; a thirty-something venture fund manager frets over his daughter’s paternity; an orphan whose hands kill whatever they touch is accused of homophobia; a suicidal daycare worker has a very bad day; a mother of two can only bear to consider abortion in the second person; the wife of a retirement-aged professor finds him unconscious near his computer. Life happens in these stories; stasis is just not an option. I write about foster kids, survivor guilt, Jewish themes; how, over time, we sometimes grow out of the lives we’ve painstakingly built for ourselves.
I’ve been told there’s a lot (comparatively) of science and medicine in my work. Makes sense, as that’s my background — I spent over 20 years in molecular biology labs, most of them connected with McGill University and the Montreal Children’s Hospital.
OB:How do you make a character vibrant and realistic in just a few pages?
BA:Describe what they’re experiencing with their senses. But not in a list… it has to be more subtle than that. The telling detail is important. The guy at the restaurant who salts his food before tasting it… does that tell you something about character? Actually, a lot of the novels I read these days seem 100 pages too long. I’ve heard editing is becoming a lost art, especially with ‘established’ writers. So I would have to say short stories are much more focused because of their length. Less flabby.
That’s really the important thing: the medium requires you to cut out the unimportant details. You just don’t have room for them.
BA:First off, I’d have to mention several of the many writers I’ve had as teachers: Neale McDevitt, Nancy Zafris, Luis Urrea spring immediately to mind. Wonderful writers, and amazingly generous teachers. My family, of course, who are my inspiration (in every possible way, often to their chagrin).
Then there are writers I’ve read: Morley Callaghan, whose The Loved And The Lost taught me when I was a very young reader that the place I lived could be interesting enough to sustain a Governor General Award-winning novel (his son Barry started Exile Editions, now run by Barry’s son Michael; both these gentlemen have read my book, which feels like coming full circle). Mordecai Richler, who taught me that the best way to engage readers is to put serious themes in a comic novel. Rohinton Mistry, for demonstrating the power of a writer who loves his characters (Swimming Lessons: and other lessons from Firozsha Bagg). Lionel Shriver (We Have to Talk About Kevin, The Post-Birthday World) for being fearless and an innovator. Margaret Atwood, whose “Death by Landscape” revealed the power of even the shortest stories to haunt us. Alice Munro — I still have the copy of Lives of Girls and Women I bought at 17. Kurt Vonnegut. Harper Lee.
And last but far from least, my writing group, a wonderful gaggle of co-conspirators, who read my work and offered up their own, teaching me so much in the bargain: Pauline Clift, Julie Gedeon, Kathy Horibe, Maranda Moses and Heather Pengelley.
How much time do we have? ;)
OB:What would you say to convince someone who is "more into novels" to give short fiction a try?
The other main point is that short stories are often a proving ground for great new writers: Alexander MacLeod, Sarah Selecky, David Bezmozgis, Vincent Lam. So reading short stories lets you be part of discovering the next big thing. There’s a certain cachet in being able to say you were among the first to appreciate them ‘way back when.’
But really, diff’rent strokes for different folks.
OB:What are you working on now?
BA:I’m trying like the devil to get my collection published in the US and elsewhere. I’m figuring out how to write a novel, something set in late ‘60s Montreal that features the FLQ crisis. I’ve also been dabbling in playwriting with Colleen Curran. One of my monologues was performed at Sarasvati Productions’ FemFest 2010. I keep thinking that some of my stories could be put together in film form, sort of like Raymond Carver’s were in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.
There’s a whole world of things out there to try. Maybe life really does begin at fifty.