Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Conflict of Interest: Heathers 2 (Starring Heather Birrell)

Part Two
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Heather Birrell

Read Part One of "Conflict of Interest: Heathers 2 (Starring Heather Birrell)."

72 Hours* with Mad Hope

*To make my column even more exciting, I've taken note of the time of day that I worked on it during the first 72 hours of writing it. I'm not revealing or denying how long I actually take (but it's at least 72 hours straight, obviously) on these columns, just putting a number into the fetters of my column's design.

April 17, 2012, 5:16 p.m.

Back from a publicity meeting and a research jam at the Toronto Public Library (Gladstone). Bought a new shirt for the Teen-Choice-Awards-grand-finale-Griffin-Teen-Poetry thing (also known as Poetry In Voice), where I'll debut the green and grey vintage tie I bought at the Tightrope Books Vintage Sale back in late March.

In this little bit from Heather Birrell’s story “My Friend Taisie,” I find this calm detail in the dialogue, a genuine empathy or admiration. It’s subtle:

But last year I went to see this bluegrass singer, and she said she was the youngest of fourteen children, and then she dedicated a song to her momma. She said, “This one goes out to my momma, who is ninety-one years old.” And I thought: Fuck me, ninety-one years old, fourteen children, what the woman has seen, right? And I got it, I really got it, and I clapped extra hard, so my palms bounced right off each other…

April 18, 2012 7:51 a.m.

Still recovering from Poetry In Voice. People kept asking me if I liked it. What is the right answer? I hate children and I hate poetry? Or I really think they are special kids?

In its context, the night was entertaining. I felt, however, the event should have been hosted by a 16-year-old and not a 30-something man. I thought the teens were dedicated and passionate. The room was teeming with poets and people who make money off of poetry. I asked someone in the row ahead of me for gum and she gave me the dagger stare. I think she was a cheerleader or possibly an (Toronto publishing house) intern.

Heather hasn't responded to my second round of questions, so I'm going to do some more reflections on the text.

8:28 a.m.

Heather emailed me about 30 minutes ago and is getting the answers back to me today. All right. Excited. Watching NewOrderStory on YouTube, but several of the 14 clips are missing. I have asked Heather questions about raising a family and writing and if there is a relationship between the two; plus I asked her about magazines and their editorial focus, whether they tend to showcase genres rather than individual authors or if there is even a pattern. Sometimes I think there is.

11:31 a.m.

I get the sense of mortality that is a key to the narrative-empathy machine in the story “My Friend Taisie.” From the onset we learn Joe is deceased, and from there a discussion of mortality is woven into the piece; how arbitrary death is, reminding me of my friend last night who came with me to Poetry In Voice and how her day started with a clean-up crew removing a jumper from the asphalt below. A suicide. And earlier in the week, a PhD candidate who I know just got a gig at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and was going to one of her patient's funerals in Hamilton. An accidental overdose. How many deaths go on in a single living person's work week? How many do we witness or experience a connection to in some way?

From “My Friend Taisie” again:

You don’t expect a person like Joe to die because there’s no particular reason for it. Other people you can imagine it, although you might not wish it on them: the piano teetering on the balcony before sailing in cinema slo-mo down onto Sarah’s unwitting form, or the ice working its way free from the overhang to deal its glancing sidelong blow to Luke — someone tall with a shaved head. The cancer nosing its diligent, mutant way through Alison, with its inception … where? They never really know, do they, and when they know, they still shake their heads or slap their notebooks shut and sit there close-mouthed and wide-eyed.

Take that self-apocalypse paranoia fiction genre King Chuck Palahniuk!

1:28 p.m.

I got invited to a national treasure named Karen's house tonight for dinner. I am going to bring Let's Pretend We Never Met and some Savage postcards. Plus cucumbers and tomatoes. She is the third person I've called a “National Treasure” this week (along with Camilla Gibb and RM Vaughan). I don't throw this term around. I told Karen I'm working on this column but should be done soon. Right now I'm listening to the soundtrack to This Is It!

In the short story “No One Really Wants to Listen,” Heather writes about the found culture — or simulated found culture — of online-advice posts or advice columns. After reading snippets from various moms about their experiences, with topics such as getting horny whilst pregnant, losing your sense of smell or changing your identity, "Wings" writes to one mother in the forum: "Whoa! Pregnancy has made you all goth, eh? Which is funny because before I got knocked up I used to listen to a lot of punk and old-school angry hipnhop. I loved that shit. Especially NWA. Then, it was so weird, as soon as those hormones got pumping, I was flicking the dial to easy listening. You know who I can't get enough of now? Faith Hill!"

We then travel with the narrator in a recollection of a childhood road trip. "When I was a child, my father packed us all into a van and we headed down to Florida, through Ontario, Ohio, then all those friendly waitress states with the fat people and big brass belt buckles."

I think about the genre of the the short story again. The collection is a great thing because its like 12 miniature novels really. I mean you need the same structure — a sense that these characters lived before and after the framework.

Drake was right: the real is on the rise. Let's see if Heather has gotten back to me.

1:40 p.m.

Not to get too Kenneth Goldsmith, but I'm reading this on the back of Heather's book now: "This is a beautiful book: funny, whip-smart, compassionate and gorgeously written. Heather Birrell belongs in the short story pantheon with Alice Munro, Lisa Moore and Zsuzsi Gartner." - Annabel Lyon.

In addition to her launch this Tuesday April 24th, 2012 at The Dakota Tavern in Toronto, Heather is reading with Carrie Snyder in Toronto on May 16th. What a cool pairing. Nice work Evan and Kate. (Toronto's preeminent book PR warlocks.) I told Evan last night that this new column concept of mine — in which I include a timeline to chart my reaction to a book and my interview with the author — could be likened to Goldsmith. It's intense, but I find that immediate reactions to whatever is going on are refreshing in that they’re unguarded and, I hope, for the most part coherent.

My roommate, Astonished Mike, is blending something. He is always blending. Two days ago it was nuts. Today I think its finishing nails. He does this, like, four times a day. My other roommate and I are creating "Ban The Blender" signs in covert meetings in Christie Pits. I want Astonished Mike to use his blender in the backyard like a good boy.

2:02 p.m.

What I like about Heather's book is that it is “post-anecdotal,” if I may (I do create book-buzz words,like "post-retail" is my new lexical tagline for the book industry ). What? What do I mean? I mean, so many books are carved from the crude matter of real life, which is great but then these morsels are drawn out for one and a half pages and are told in perspectives that read as if they’ve just been cut and pasted into dialogue. We lose the sense that the book has been written because it sounds as if it's talking to us without letting us think. I'm guilty of that one for sure in some of my cruder works, but the point here is that where a moment could have been exploited and overblown Heather takes control. The stingray moment is a prime example.

2:11 p.m.

It's refreshing and encouraging to me as a writer to see a dedication to detail and blending at work. A story about a stingray and a dad and daughter is told from the the daughter's point of view rather than from the dad's. The daughter's narration is subtle and humble. Plus she says "brambly thicket" in a passage. So what becomes a moment between father and daughter about the perils of stingray culture becomes an opening into the narrator's psyche. We learn as she tells us how she learned.

5:16 p.m.

Reading over Heather's answers. I asked her what her favourite classical myth is for some reason.

Heather: It’s Persephone’s story, partly because of Eavan Boland’s beautiful treatment of it in her poem “The Pomegranate.” Here’s the beginning:

The only legend I have ever loved is
the story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.

6:54 p.m.

My questions touch on motherhood, what she will read next and the business of recording stories and putting them online. I asked her what she thought of the archival act.

Heather: I hadn’t really thought of it other than with gratitude — for the opportunity of having my work communicated in a way other than on the page. I’m especially pleased with "Trouble at Pow Crash Creek," a story that Miette recorded on her Bedtime Story Podcast (miettecast.com). Pleased and proud but also somewhat abashed because she makes the story sound so darn good — so mellifluous and professional it’s hard to believe I actually wrote it.

7:51 p.m.

Raising two daughters (three and a half and eight months) takes up almost all of Heather’s time, and time for a writer is a precious thing, perhaps something we non-parents take for granted. Yet still the experience does influence her writing, as does everything that happens in one’s life.

I’m still mired in those hands-on, boobs-out early years. I’m tired; I have no time; we’re out of bananas and pull-ups again? And: I’m tired; I have no time; the world is more beautiful, joy and sadness more acute because I get to care for my children and watch them grow. And: a fierceness and focus, a more ready dismissal of the trivial and banal, a different form of engagement with the world and my creative work.

This Tuesday, for a couple of hours at least, Heather will be launching her new book at The Dakota Tavern with friends, family and admirers. As for what she'll read, she hasn't exactly decided yet, but is excited to see how the work is received. "I think maybe a section of ‘Geraldine and Jerome,’ which is a story about two very different people who strike up a conversation and forge an unlikely bond in the waiting room of a breast cancer clinic. It sounds bleak, but it’s not, or it is, but the bleakness is leavened by humour!"

Mad Hope (Coach House Books) launches this Tuesday night at the Dakota Tavern.


Nathaniel G. Moore has just completed a biographical novel/memoir called Savage 1986-2011. This summer he will be working on the uprising of his new imprint at Tightrope Books (The Highwire) and helping the press in the department of book promo. Follow him on Twitter @NathanielGMoore

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