- Children’s Books
- A Note on Teaching Poetry
- Other Writing
1. What made you choose to write a book with such dark themes for a young audience?
I am never aware of “choosing” to write anything! I only write a novel when I feel absolutely compelled to do so because something insists it needs further exploration. An idea or an image or little bit of narrative nags away at me for a long time and that my curiosity about it keeps growing rather than dissipating. Ultimately, the only way I can assuage that curiosity is to give in to it. I write the story to find out what it is that is compelling me.
The particular book was a debt I paid to a young woman I worked with when I was in university (there is a note to that effect at the back of the book). I thought about her off and on for many years. Then, one day, thirty years later, a voice started talking in my head and it was Sophie, her younger sister. I was thrilled when I realized that I had found a way into the story that wouldn’t require me to appropriate the girl’s situation by pretending that I knew what it felt like to be paralyzed. I wrote the first draft of the first chapter that night. A couple more chapters of Sophie followed and then I knew I was going to be writing half the book in her voice and half the book in Libbie’s voice.
By the way, I don’t see the book as having “dark themes”. Illness and death are part of every single person’s life, so it is hard to call them “dark” rather than simply realistic. Anyway, if you asked me what I thought the theme of the book was, I would say it is that creativity gives you freedom. Hence the title: The Discovery of Flight.
Finally, as to audience: publishers decided that it was a YA book! To me, it was just a book.
2. Was writing from the point of view of such a young narrator a challenge for getting critical reviews (young/ weak writing style)
Oh heavens, if I worried about the critics I would never write anything at all! I just tried to enter the minds of younger people (I was one once, you know, and also I have two kids). I don’t see the writing style as “weak”; sorry that you do.
3.Why did you choose to have the children follow so closely with their parents’ interests? (Elizabeth and her dad both loving birds, Sophie and her mom loving the outdoors, Malcolm and his father both being musicians).
This is my experience of the world. At least until they leave home, most kids tend to enjoy at least some of the activities their parents introduce them to. They reject others – for example, the mother is a mathematician and Sophie hates math – and also discover their own special talents – for example, neither of the parents loves writing but both girls do; neither of the parents make art but Sophie loves art, etcetera.
4.Is cerebral palsy something that has affected you personally or someone around you? Why did you choose that to write about it specifically?
There is a note at the back of the book that answers this question. I volunteered at a home for disabled youth when I was in university and encountered the original of Libby there. She was stuck in a wheelchair all day long, only able to observe other people engaging in activities. Nobody talked to her or interacted with her. She had beautifully intelligent eyes but no way of communicating. Now we have wonderful technology that allows shut-in paraplegics to communicate by controlling a keyboard with their eyes, so this gave me a way to give her the agency she didn’t have in real life.
5.The book was also heavily religious, is this to reflect your own beliefs? Or rather to question how with religion and god, do people so underserving get punished (as Sophie said with Libby and her disease being bad luck more than anything)?
The latter. I believe that all the religions in the world evolved for exactly the same reason – to explain to people why there is so much injustice and suffering in the world and to give them some kind of rationale according to which they can endure it. You can’t meet a girl who has been paralyzed since birth and not think about these things. And if the girl is your sister, you will be more preoccupied than most with how unfair her life is.
This family is Jewish because I am Jewish and that is the religion that I know most about. But the main issue was trying to understand the roles of fate or luck in people’s lives, and to dismiss facile explanations for why some people are healthy and others are not.
6.Did you set out in writing the book to have Sophie question her religion so much or is that something that developed through the writing?
That just happened. But Sophie’s voice, from the first minute I heard it, was very snarky, so once religion entered the book, there was no doubt that her attitude would be irreverent.
7.Did you intend the book for the younger audience through the writing and characters or for an older audience with the heavier themes of religion and death?
I never thought about the audience while I was writing. I only thought about being true to the characters and their stories.
8.Was it challenging to connect to the young characters in your writing?
Not at all. The greatest pleasure of writing is the opportunity to be somebody other than oneself. In this book I even got to be a hawk!
9.What did you edit out of this book? Did you feel you lost some pieces of the characters that you loved?
The book changed so much over the ten years I was writing it! There was one draft which was sci-fi, where Libby was a flying alien princess whose spirit had been sent to Earth to be preserved during a war on her planet … Then the movie Avatar came out, and I scrapped that version.
Later I abandoned the book altogether after my daughter became close with a girl whose big sister was paralyzed, because I thought that family would think I was ripping them off. Three years later, when I told them about it, they enthusiastically encouraged me to write the story saying “nobody writes about our experience.” It was lucky I had that time out, because then I learned about assistive technology, so the bits that had been a fantasy in Libby’s head turned into a book that she was writing, and their style totally changed.
10.Did you find yourself trying to hide secrets in this book for readers to find or were you trying to keep the messages very straightforward in order for them to be further understood?
There are no “messages” or “secrets”, hidden or otherwise, in any of my writing. Why? Because any message that literature could put across would be so vague and general as to be useless. “War is Hell”; “Life is complicated”; “Love one another or die”. What use are “messages” like that?
How literature teaches us about life is not by sending out “messages.” Literature teaches us by giving us the space and time to imaginatively inhabit another person’s life and empathize with his or her situation. In daily life we never get to enter anybody’s mind but our own, but literature gives us the opportunity to be lots of other people. This is the moral dimension to literature: that it insists that we transcend our egos and be empathetic.
When you write, you are creating a world for the reader to enter, building scenes for that reader to experience. Each individual work may grapple with certain themes that become a moral focus for the characters and therefore for readers as well, but this is not the same as being didactic and having a “message.”
11.Did you have a specific motivation in choosing birds for Libby to love and associate herself with?
Absolutely. She can’t move at all! So if she is going to dream of moving, why not dream big?
12.What was your motivation in having Libby create a distance between herself and Sophie when she got sicker and was writing her book? Was it a rush with her knowing her time was up or was it an issue of energy? Was it included in order to make the loss harder for Sophie? For the reader?
It just seemed natural that if Libby could feel herself getting sicker and sicker, she would want to conserve all her energy to finish writing her book. I wasn’t thinking about how that would affect anybody else, though obviously when I wrote the Sophie bits, and got into Sophie’s head, Sophie did land up feeling rejected and so forth. But it wasn’t any kind of “strategy” to make distance or affect the reader or anything like that.
13.What was the inspiration for the invaders? Were they meant to represent Libby’s disease? Why did you choose their embodiment of fire? (the red coloured feathers, black soot, etc.)
The invaders were just meant to be stereotypical nasties; Sophie and Libby have read lots of fantasy literature together and Sophie is always playing “Settlers of Catan”, so I set Libby’s story in a kind of pre-industrial medieval world, with peasants in small villages and robbers riding through on horseback burning stuff down. Fire was important because it is something that both animals and people fear, so it was a way to link the hawk and the girl from the start through a traumatic event that would engage their minds and their emotions deeply.
Though at the end Sophie does seem to see the Invaders as a metaphor for Libby’s illness (because her conclusion shows Aya being killed by the Giant) Libby never did; she was too deeply immersed in imagining the world she had invented.
You have to click on the image to make it larger. When I posted a larger image, it became distorted. I have yet to understand the workings of the updated WordPress, for which I apologize. That is why the font size is so inconsistent, for example. One day I will redo this website, I promise! No, really. I mean it. I will. Just … not yet.
November 16, 2022 by Michael Greenstein
Poet, novelist, essayist, educator, dancer, painter – Susan Glickman is, by all accounts, a Renaissance woman whose talents are on full display in Artful Flight, a collection of essays and reviews written between 1985 and 2019. Creative and analytic, serious and witty, generous and judicious, her thoughtful prose takes wing in many different forms and directions. A feminist Daedalus, she re-invents dance, flight, and cadence in her craft of criticism that ranges from Shakespeare to modern Canadian poetry, and from the scholarly to personal intimacy. Whether her pen flourishes across paper or her hands tap dance on the keyboard, she choreographs with subtlety and clarity.
Early on in her book she tackles the question of indirection via Emily Dickinson’s famous advice: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” She artfully combines slant with semi-colons: “I still love semi-colons; I sneak them in the way I once snuck female authors into my course lists.” This juxtaposition of indirection and grammatical marker not only forms part of a feminist perspective, but also creates a rhythm in Glickman’s writing akin to dancing. (If the relationship between writing and dancing seems to be a stretch of mind and body, consider Yeats’s invocation of the dancer and the dance, Leonard Cohen’s “dance me to the end of love,” Paul Celan’s “Death Tango” quoted in the book, or Glickman’s references to ballads that are related to ballet.)
Half period, half comma, the semi-colon pauses rather than stops in the manner of a period; yet it creates a slightly longer breathing space than the comma, and allows a sentence to stretch itself out. (What would Henry James have done without the semi-colon, dash, and parenthesis?) Arguably the most sophisticated form of punctuation, it usually appears around mid-sentence, but Glickman adjusts it earlier in a sentence or towards the end, thereby adding variety to the rhythm of her prose, which is always informed by her poetic sensibility. Her slant is in the semi-colon; the semi-colon is in her slant: “The agent is on the phone; the people, especially a thin young man in a dirty raincoat, are still arguing in German, in French.” This imagined scene takes place in an airport, site of artful flight. The dance around her semi-colon between the agent and the people is repeated in a slightly modified step: “The agent on the phone meets your eyes briefly; nods; holds up his palm in the international signal to wait.” Instead of commas, we have longer pauses to imitate the wait. In her more personal essays, the semi-colon is dialogic, connecting characters; in her more formal prose dances, it is dialectic, bouncing two ideas or thoughts against each other.
Thus far, I have inserted the figure of dance metaphorically, but as the book progresses it takes on a more explicit stance. “On Going to Art School in My Sixties” describes the model’s body: “Contorted, writhing, and twisted; climbing, dancing, in a boxer’s stance or yoga asana.” The motion of this still body is captured predominantly in commas, but highlighted by the semi-colon that separates all the dancing gerunds and participles. The artist paints her prose, but also dances with the subject until dancer and dance are indistinguishable: “I get the same kind of pleasure from dancing as I did from making music or painting …. The kinaesthetic impulse travels almost without mediation from the brain to limbs – you hear music and you move.” A syntactical dance of semi-colons goes hand in hand with commas, dashes, and parentheses that enter her lyrical choreography: “I am dancing away from and back to my easel.” Slant, dance, and semi-colon lie at the heart of style and substance. Through artful footsteps and ambidextrous embrace, she clasps the brush and body.
To the substance: “Second Person Impersonal” teases out the permutations of “you” in lyrical poetry, taking off from Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, shifting to Denise Levertov’s Broken Ghazals, and ending with poems by Roo Borson and Kim Maltman. Glickman’s observations along the way point to the fluidity of genres and styles of writing. When she engages with an individual poet such as Levertov, an interpretive dance between student and mentor ensues; when she compares two other poets, she dances between them dialectically, demonstrating her mind in motion.
If Levertov is one influence, then Northrop Frye in a different direction is another. “My Life with Northrop Frye” portrays a relationship that is warm and cool. She distinguishes between Frye’s monumental achievements in English literature, and his position regarding Canadian literature, which is found wanting. Her pivot to personal anecdote lowers his high seriousness one notch: “Forgive me for outraging decorum by relating a personal anecdote, but I believe it is germane to the topic under discussion.” Her parentheses that follow are subversive: “(Literature is just a higher form of gossip anyway, and I suspect that my experience is representative rather than exceptional.)” One could argue with her definition of literature, but she continues to press her case: “My book, The Picturesque and the Sublime: A Poetics of the Canadian Landscape (which went on to win both the 1998 Gabrielle Roy Prize as the year’s best work in English literary criticism and the Raymond Klibansky prize as the year’s best work in the Humanities) was rejected by the University of Toronto Press.” Her book is certainly worthy of both prizes; the categories of the picturesque and the sublime, moreover, highlight two levels of Glickman’s own discourse from the scholarly to the personal. Her book was rejected because she “wasn’t nice to Northrop Frye.” She counters with a picturesque retort against the sublime academy: “Now, my conscience on that score is entirely clear; I was unfailingly nice to Professor Frye! I was his student as well as one of his teaching assistants. I bought him flowers, ate ice cream with him (he preferred strawberry).” The strawberry vs. the sublime: that epitomizes the relationship not only between Glickman and Frye, but also between endemic hierarchies within the academy. She quotes Leonard Bernstein: “I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve never seen a statue of a critic.” Ironically Frye’s statue is fixed beside the Pratt Library at Victoria College, where he is seated on a bench with legs crossed and surrounded by books – the anatomy of the picturesque.
Her affectionate analysis of Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “A Precise Woman,” is typical of her style of criticism in the rest of her incisive essays. There is a dance in the poem between domestic order and sexual desire that moves in the opposite, yet complementary, directions: “A precise woman: on the bedroom carpet / her shoes always point away from the bed. / (My shoes point toward it).” This silent dance at the end of the poem, hushed by carpet and parenthesis, contrasts with the screeching birds preceding it with their onomatopoeic sounds of sex. The woman is precise because of the order she restores on the potential for domestic chaos, but she is also precise in being the only woman for the poet. Glickman spins the poem and the couple precisely in her interpretation and comments on translation. (Ironically the Hebrew “miduyeket” uses twice as many syllables as its English equivalent “precise,” yet its strong fourth syllable closes it with precision.)
She reviews Robyn Sarah, Anne Szumigalski, Diana Hartog, and Gwendolyn MacEwen. By playing off Patricia Young against Stephen Scobie, she illuminates both poets. Similarly, juxtaposing Don Coles and David Solway, she demonstrates once again her dialectical and dialogical methods of criticism, which are so acute. Ever the careful sleuth of research and creativity, she interestingly tracks the changes in Michael Ondaatje’s revisions. “Artful Flight: Anne Lamott and Ali Smith” pairs the two writers, but also highlights Glickman’s own title, which she derives from Smith’s 2012 Oxford lectures, entitled Artful, which in turn derives from Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Glickman captures Smith’s Dodger in words that apply equally to her own writing: “It is a breathless ride between comparative literature, the visual arts (there are illustrations at the back), and pop culture, full of extraordinary and illuminating connections between anomalous figures such as Michelangelo and Kathryn Mansfield, Kafka and Charlie Chaplin, Oscar Wilde and Margaret Atwood.” Dancer rather than Dodger, Glickman connects writers in her illuminating writing.
Her essays examine in detail the poetry of Don Coles, Phyllis Webb’s ghazal, John Newlove, Erin Moure, Bronwen Wallace, and conclude the section with “Two Holocaust Poets: Primo Levi and Paul Celan.” Her final section ends on a lighter note: she finds herself in Mexico enjoying the natural daylight in contrast to the sealed windows and fluorescent lighting of Robarts library. Or, in “Found Money” she finds herself in Greece finding coins on cobblestones, as if they were manna from heaven, and treats herself to an anise-scented, honey-soaked gingerbread. In another piece she examines the word “let” in Hamlet in the context of contranyms such as “cleave” – words that mean themselves and their opposites. After offering many original insights, she wittily concludes that “His name really should be Ham-let.²” Once again, Glickman squares circles in a dance of contranyms, where opposites partner within the same word.
The Porcupine’s Quill artfully designs her book with a number of flying machines. The book’s cover features a broad wingspan connected by diagonals, the slants of Glickman’s truths. Other dirigibles throughout the text complement her dance that is grounded in solid research and takes flight in her lucid style and light-handed approach to her erudition. Buoyed by zephyrs and zeppelins, whimsical wings, and deft dances, the outsider moves from the margins towards an artful centre. Slant, semi-colon, dash, and parentheses dance across the page to the pace of a different drummer and an infinity of blues.