- Children’s Books
- A Note on Teaching Poetry
- Other Writing
Everyone is told “Write what you know.” This doesn’t mean just “write what you, personally, have experienced.” It means “write everything you know about,” which includes everything you’ve ever read, seen, or been told. Your knowledge of life is much bigger than your own existence! So, although I often draw on my own life for incidents that seem fraught with meaning, I see myself as an individual example of universal events. That is, I use my own life as a repository of people and places through which I can explore subjects that interest me.
All that being said, “The Woman Beside the Lake Is Reading” is pretty straightforwardly autobiographical! My husband and I had rented a cottage near Bala for a week. Our son was seven at the time, and our daughter was four. They did the stuff I describe. The book I was trying to read was The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. But beyond these particular details, the poem speaks to larger revelations that break every parent’s heart: you can’t really protect your children because you can’t really know everything that is happening to them.
Questions for Susan Glickman
1. One thing that I noticed as I read your book, Safe as Houses, is that it seemed to stray from the typical plot line of a murder mystery, and that as the story progressed it seemed to get further and further away from the murder and became more about Liz Ryerson’s life. Why choose a murder mystery to talk about a middle aged woman’s life and her struggles with her own way of life and family?
Well, as you know I was inspired by walking my own dog to imagine finding a body in my neighbourhood, and what landed up interesting me more than the mechanics of the police procedural or conventional murder mystery with lots of red herrings and false suspects and so on was how that body would affect the person who found it. For Liz Ryerson, finding James Scott’s body shakes her out of her complacency and makes her question her life.
2. I read in an interview you did with the CBC that you got the inspiration for Safe as Houses while you were out walking your dog and were in Wychwood Park in Toronto. Where do you usually gain inspiration for your books and poems?
I get inspiration anywhere and everywhere; any idea that sticks with me for a long time and comes back to me again and again I find I eventually have to investigate further through my writing. That is the only way I find out why it interested me in the first place! People tend to think that writers write because they want to tell other people something, but that’s not always the case. Writers write because that is how they figure out the world.
3. What appeals to you about so many different genres in your writing? Like, why write a murder mystery, poetry, children’s books, and academic papers? Was there one genre you prefer over the other?
It’s only with writing that people ask that question, I think. With visual artists no one would ask “Why do you sometimes like to paint and other times draw? Why do you like to do both sculpture and collage?” No one asks a musician “Why do you write both songs with lyrics and instrumental pieces for jazz ensembles or chamber groups?” Or maybe they do – what do I know? But the thing is, whatever your medium, it’s always fun to explore different ways of using it.
Besides, distinctions in genre are very useful for critics and people discussing books but not nearly as important to people writing them. You just try to tell the story in the best way you can. I wrote an essay about my frustration with genre here; you might find it interesting.
4. While reading the book I found it very interesting how you characterized Liz. She had many dimensions and different levels to her character, for example she was a strong woman, which is shown right off the bat in the novel, which is shown when she is explaining her and husband’s current living situation and how it typically didn’t bother her, but she was also very sensitive and as the book went on it was easier to see some of her cracks and weaknesses, like her son saying how she only sees what she wants. How did you come up with Liz and her flaws? Did you base her off of someone you know?
I can’t exactly say where she came from. She’s not anyone in particular; more of a composite, really. I think what happened is that I wanted her to have a bookstore because I was writing about my neighbourhood and I’ve always wanted a bookstore in my neighbourhood so now I could magically have one. And then thinking about the typical three-story storefront buildings along St Clair, most of which have apartments above them, I found her evolving into someone who lived above her shop, and then somehow her husband migrated to the floor above her and so on and so on … each thing led to another until her portrait emerged.
I used to live in England and have a close friend in Bristol so that’s why she came from there; figuring out why her family would have migrated brought in the tobacco industry, and so on … I love to research things until something just clicks for my character and I begin to really see her or him as a three-dimensional person with a complex history and family tree.
5.One thing I have been wondering for a long time is if when you set out to write a book if you have an idea of what symbols and metaphors you want to use throughout the entire book? Or do they just come to you as you are writing?
When I saw the body in the park I wondered who he was. For some reason, he felt like a real estate agent – kind of glossy and well-dressed, someone entirely unexpected in that situation. I was writing in the middle of a real estate boom and huge gentrification of my neighbourhood, so at first I thought he was murdered because of some kind of shady financial swindle. But it turned out that kind of plot didn’t really engage me. What interested me was the notion of safety and its corollary: luck. I really believe that nobody is safe. Those who don’t get hurt are merely lucky. So I wanted him to be someone who had experienced some really bad luck and didn’t manage to get over it. And I balanced his bad luck with the good luck of, for example, Derek, Sammy’s boyfriend, who had a loving mother and who was given second chances and didn’t have his life ruined by a criminal offence.
Hence the title “Safe as Houses.” That’s an old English expression. I thought it meant that houses were safe places to be because they were solid, but when I read up on it it turned out to refer to the supposed solidity of real estate investments! So then I started thinking about all the things that houses mean, especially families, and that became a key theme of the book.
6. What I found very interesting in the book was the way you switch back and forth between Liz and James Scott’s storylines. For me, as I was reading the novel I thought that it added a new layer to the mystery because I was not only wondering who the murderer was but also who the other person was and later how it intertwined with Liz’s story. What was the reasoning for having both perspectives and having them work together to tell a more complex and deeper story?
I didn’t want to just use him as a plot device but let him be a real person with his own tragic history. It is a terrible thing to be killed by somebody else. I had to find out why it happened. So I built the two narratives – his from the origin of the event that lead to his murder to the murder itself, and hers from the point of finding the body to getting over that trauma and understanding what happened.
Also, I like to write from more than one point of view because truth is complex and no one knows every part of a story, even if it’s about themselves!
7. From reading your biography and doing some Googling I noticed that you have tried multiple things in your life, from studying dance and drama, to archeology, and then to English Literature and Creative Writing. Do you think the other experiences and fields of knowledge have helped make you into the writer you are now? And do you think that you would be as good a writer as you are without those other experiences?
I am curious about everything – right now I am in art school! Life is too short, unfortunately, to do all the things I want to do. Writing is a good way to have a lot of vicarious experiences you can’t have yourself, by giving them to your characters—that’s one reason I enjoy writing! As to whether it makes me a better writer, who knows? Although I do have a wide range of general knowledge, which is helpful.
8. When you start writing any type of work do you first make an outline of where you want the story to go?
I don’t make the outline until I’ve already started and I don’t start writing for at least a year or so after I get the idea for a book. I keep revising the outline as I go, and revise it again after the first draft when I really know what the story is.
9. In an interview you said that the word ‘bestseller’ being used as a synonym for ‘book’ is the death of writing. Did you ever plan to have your first novel, The Violin Lover, to be as successful as it was? And how did you react to it?
Gosh, if I could “plan” for anything to be successful I certainly would! But nothing I have written has been very successful, I’m afraid. I’ve lost money with every book I’ve written. If I’d spent all those hours working as a barrista at Starbucks instead of writing I would be further ahead financially.
But maybe you aren’t referring to finanial success but to literary recognition? That is very sweet indeed, when it happens. Which isn’t often.
10.Once I had finished the book I was very much upset by the fact that James was murdered because of the life he had lead and how he was at last coming to some sort of peace and had found someone happy. But I could also see how someone would feel little to no sympathy for his character based on what he had done in the past and how he had run from it. Were you ever worried about the way that people would react to James Scott as you revealed more of his life?
I really hoped that they would feel compassion for him and hope for him to be happy and be as sad as I was that his life was cut short. At the same time I wanted them to have some sympathy for poor old Brian, who is such a bloody loser, and understand how he got to the sad place he was in. I know that there is terrible evil and cruelty in the world but it scares the shit out of me. So in my own work I choose to explore the damage ordinary people do to each other rather than the demonic stuff.
11. You had said that when you wrote Safe as Houses that you filled in the pieces that were missing from your own life and that is how you came up with Liz owning the bookstore. Do you often use these missing pieces as a basis for your stories or are they just details that you add in to make the story more real to you?
Well, the nice thing about making stuff up is you can give yourself little treats all along the way – secret jokes, references to conversations, puns and riddles, revenge on people who won’t even know you’re taking revenge on them, etc etc. You will find all kinds of stuff about me in my books, as you will about any author in their work: if you read all my stuff it would be easy to see that I love travel, and gardening, and birdwatching, and animals in general; music and art, cooking, and word games; that I dislike driving and am hopeless at math. And so on.
12.You have worked at many different schools in Canada. Why work at so many different places. What did they offer to you and your writing?
I thought I would be an English professor forever, but I made the mistake of having kids and buying a house with a man whose work was in Toronto, so I couldn’t follow the job market to a tenured position elsewhere and just had to get short-term contracts and fellowships. And then I made the bigger mistake of dropping out of university teaching for a few years to stay home with my children. That was the end of my academic career. So my teaching lots of places was by necessity, not by choice.
Teaching creative writing is helpful though, because it makes you think things through and articulate them to other people who want clear answers and examples. When you make up exercises for them and critique their work, you learn loads that helps you with your own writing.
13.Something that I loved about your book was the multiple relationships that Liz had. And that they were always evolving and shifting into new and sometimes more complex things than what they originally were. For example Liz’s relationship with Laura went from general dislike to a partnership when it came to Liz’s daughter. The book almost became more a commentary on relationships and how they change and evolve rather than a murder mystery. Did you plan this from the beginning or did it just happen as you were writing?
I’m so glad you like that! Of course it just evolved as I was writing – I actually had no idea what the book would be about when I started, just that a woman with a dog found a dead body. But as I got interested in her, I got interested in her community. And, as I said before, I never want a character to just be a plot device, I want everyone to be complex and interesting and multifacted, as people are in real life.
I just did one with her current class about my latest novel, Safe as Houses, which prompted me to look up this old one about an earlier book. Natalee teaches Canlit at Brock University and is a huge booster of contemporary work, getting her class to read and review stuff that has come out that year! I assume that the student who asked these thoughtful questions won’t mind my sharing our correspondence with the world.
Well, having grown up in the 50s when gender roles were quite strict, I have always loved stories about girls who disguised themselves in order to do things forbidden to them. In addition, I used to be an English professor specializing in Renaissance drama, and one of my favourite plays to teach was Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which subscribes to that tradition. SO when I discovered an incident like that in Canadian history I was delighted! I read about it many years before I felt brave enough to write about it.
Growing up an anglophone Jew in Montreal definitely contributed to my fascination with Esther Brandeau. Her visit – and my conviction, after researching the events around it, that hidden Jews were already living here – vindicated my sense of being entitled to claim equal rights as a Quebecer as against the rhetoric of separatists who saw everyone but French Catholics as outsiders.
What I learned about my home province that affected my opinion positively was how much better life in La Nouvelle France was for poor folks than life back in Europe. To my surprise, this was also a revelation for a lot of my francophone readers after the book was translated. They were used to reading books about the terrible hardships faced by habitants, so were very pleased to discover that things here were, for the most part, an improvement over what they’d left behind!
I’ve always felt that way. I think that most children do, but they get trained by society to accept the injustices they perceive around them as just the way things have to be. I conceived of Esther as someone who retained that childish purity of outlook because she was an outsider.
I couldn’t imagine another reason they would have kept her there for a year. She had to have SOME kind of hold over people, and that was the only one that made sense. As I wrote in my “afterword”, I didn’t believe the story she told about having travelled in disguise as a boy for five years, but I admired it as a wonderful piece of storytelling, so the impetus came from her actual words.
I didn’t read their books until I’d finished mine; in fact, I started mine long before I even knew about theirs! Then I was afraid to read them. But when I finally did, I was relieved to find how little, in fact, we had in common. For example, both of the other writers believed Esther’s story about having travelled as a boy for five years prior to arriving in Quebec and spent a long time narrating those adventures. In addition, both made her a very beautiful girl, with lovers and admirers, to heighten the romance. I wasn’t interested in writing that kind of tale. (Lasry also made her religious, which was inconsistent with running away dressed as a boy.)
I basically ran away from home under the guise of getting an education, and spent many years trying to find my way into alien cultures as a young woman who wasn’t taken very seriously, who was seen as “exotic” and an outsider. Also, I experienced quite a bit of anti-Semitism in Europe – actually, I experienced some even at the University of Toronto as a doctoral student and later, as a professor in the Catholic setting of St Michael’s College. We are all influenced by everything in our lives; these experiences doubtless contributed to my book.
I was trying to be clever for the interview but honestly, where I write doesn’t have a huge influence on what I write, except if I am looking around me for useful images and descriptions! I can write anywhere: on a napkin at McDonald’s, on a laptop on the train, on inside cover of someone else’s novel at a museum.
I wish I could say they’ve made me rich and famous but alas, no. Writing is just as hard as it ever was, and pays just as badly. Every time I write a new book I feel like I’m starting from scratch, trying to find a publisher who likes the weird things I write. I haven’t been lucky in having a mentor or even an agent on my side helping me with the business side of stuff, at which I, frankly, suck.
Not for me. I like having more than one project on the go so that I can follow the creative energy in the most efficient direction. But I’ve always been like that – I never could decide, when I was younger, between dance and drama, or painting and drawing.
The legacy of having been a dancer: I rewrite everything 5,000,000 times until it gives the illusion of being effortless.
Each book requires a different strategy. My first novel had an excruciatingly detailed outline that I worked on for months and months – it was in sonata form. Because I was terrified of writing a novel and needed the security of a rigid armature before starting. The Tale-Teller’s outline was a series of incidents, eventually matched to a series of stories, which is also the way The Discovery of Flight – a YA novel still looking for a publisher – was written. The novel that is coming out this spring, Safe as Houses, had a chronology and series of character sketches, but even though it was a mystery, I didn’t know very much about it until I was more than halfway through. So I guess I’m loosening up as I go on. But maybe the next thing I write will be completely different. Who knows.
I used to be an actor and have worked a lot in theatre (my doctorate was on Shakespeare’s dramaturgy) so I “hear” dialogue very clearly. Voice is also really important for poetry, which I’ve written my whole life, and always edit out loud.
Also I’m a huge eavesdropper and lover of accents and idioms.
I see poetry as a score for solo voice, and punctuation as musical notation. The line-break is a sixteenth-note rest; the comma an eighth-note rest; the semi-colon a quarter-note rest; the period a half-note rest; the stanza break a whole note rest. I will never give up a single punctuation mark; we need more, not fewer!
That is not French; it is Ladino, a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew spoken by Sephardic Jews. The quotations are from the traditional proverbs of Esther’s people, and relate to the events of the chapter; their presence is also a clue to her hidden identity.
I don’t really write non-fiction anymore, not since I stopped being an English professor. So I guess that answers your second question! As for your first, I am just really really curious and love learning things, so I do a lot of research in order to make the worlds I create feel real.
This engaging page-turner kept me surprised and entertained during a flight delay – what better recommendation is there? Seriously, whether or not you’re a mystery fan, Safe As Houses is a great read anywhere. It has so many pleasing components — Liz, a bookish dog-walker turned sleuth when her hound sniffs out a dead body in one of Toronto’s most genteel parks; Sammy, her fractious teenaged kid who can’t cope with her boring mom; Maxime, an elegant French Classics professor and Roman-antiquity quote-dropper. And more. There’s a subplot; Liz’s marriage to Adam is over, and he lives upstairs with his girlfriend in the building that houses her bookstore. He wants out of his investment, provoking enough uncertainty in Liz’s life without a dead body showing up on her morning walk.
The parallel storytelling is very well done and builds suspense. At the outset, we’re introduced to an abused child, a box of matches, an act of arson. His story (noted by a matchbox icon) is interspersed with the numbered chapters of Liz’s narrative, as we gradually realize who the child is and why it matters. In the end, the mystery gets solved, but there’s no tidy ending; it feels both as satisfying and as shadowy as life often feels. In its gentle way, the story keeps reminding us that safety is never certain and life keeps surprising us, even on innocent dog-walks. You’ll enjoy this book.