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Through Failure, Art

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Dear everyone ever: Take heart, if you are toiling, if you have been derailed, if you are feeling crushed by defeat. Here is what Agnes Martin has to say about failure…

“It’s through discipline and tremendous disappointment and failure that you arrive at what it is you must paint.” —Agnes Martin

Mimi (1997-2014)

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I miss the reading. Or rather I miss the way she used to lie on the pages I were reading. I miss the way she used to lie on things—old records, folded newspapers, coats, manuscripts. (If there was a rectangle in the room, she would come and lie on it.) I miss her being near me and nudging me to work. I miss the way she would sit facing the wall, staring at it in great contemplation. I miss her gentle bossiness. I miss her nightly need for warmth and reassurance and how this need filled and taught me. I miss her sensing my own need.

Mimi shared our story for seventeen years: the changing homes and furniture, the people who wandered in and out, the babies that arrived, the brother cat that died…

I wrote about “Mimi, My Muse” here.

It has taken me a week to stop seeing and hearing her everywhere. Now the silence is the hardest part. It’s as if a vital track suddenly went missing in the mix. Our familiar house song has lost it’s percussive (pitter-patter) heart.

It made me happy this week when my friend Brenda dropped off these photos. This is where our story with Mimi and Harpo began. In Brenda’s garden. On a warm spring day in 1997.

(Top: Mimi far left. Bottom: Mimi in the middle, fending off Harpo.)

Inspire: Toronto International Book Fair

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If you’re in Toronto this weekend and attending Inspire: Toronto International Book Fair, please stop by and say hello. I will be doing three events for little-big people.

Friday, November 14 at 11:00 a.m. in the Piller’s Culinary Zone.
Sunday, November 16 at 11:30 a.m. on the TD Children’s Stage.
Sunday, November 16 at 3:30 p.m. “How a Picture Book is Made” panel (with author/illustrator Ian Wallace, editor Kathryn Cole and designer Michael Solomon) the Discovery Stage.

I will also be working at the IBBY booth on Sunday, November 16 from 1:00-3:00 p.m.

(Image: source unknown.)

Happy Halloween!

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“The ghosts swarm.
They speak as one
person. Each
loves you. Each
has left something

(Words from “Unbidden” by Rae Armantrout, 2009. Illustration from “Ghosts” by Marc Boutavant. Enchanted Lion Books, 2013.)

Martin says “Merci!”

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The winners of les Prix Jeunesse des libraires du Québec were announced yesterday in Montreal. “M.Flux” (the French version of “Mr. Flux”) received the award in the “International 6-11 year old” category. Matte Stephens and I share this honor with our wonderful French publisher, La Pastèque.

Thank you booksellers and readers of Québec! Thank you La Pastèque for always thinking outside the box. You are the best and the true spirit of M. Flux.

Bon Appétit.

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Today is the official pub date for Julia, Child. I hope it nourishes you in little-big ways. I hope you enjoy feasting on Julie Morstad‘s delectable art.

I did an interview about the book with Jama’s Alphabet Soup, which you can read here, and, while you’re at it, you might want to check out Jama’s posts on other Julia-related reads (such as this). Also, there is this, which is simply too amazing for words. You’ll just have to take a peek yourself.

And, finally, I thought I’d share two quotes from Julia Child herself:

“You’ll never know everything about anything, especially something you love.”

“I’m afraid that surprise, shock, and regret is the fate of authors when they finally see themselves on the page.”

(Images: book illustration by Julie Morstad; “Julia correct proofs of Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” 1961.)

All Over the Map

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As you can see, this blog hasn’t exactly been a hotbed of activity. To resuscitate things a bit, I agreed to take part in this blog tour on the invitation of the very talented and kind Lauren Stringer. Lauren’s work is a marvel—lyrical and smart. If you’re not already familiar with her book When Stravinsky Met Njinsky (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), I suggest you get a copy pronto.

The format of this blog tour is to answer four questions and introduce two other writers at the end. So here we go:

1) What am I working on?
Thankfully my writing notebook has not been as empty and forlorn as my blog. I have been busy working on several projects including: 1) a narrative non-fiction book about birds; 2) a graphic novel about singing, a boygirl and Maria Callas; 3) a picture book about a band of solitaries.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I find this hard to answer. It feels a bit like being asked: “How does your dog differ from other dogs?” There is so much intra-species variety within the breeds “literary fiction,” “memoir” or “picture book biography.” A “novel” can be as wildly various as a “terrier.” Also: I keep reading the word “differ” as “worse than” or “better than” and neither seem like beneficial comparisons.

3) Why do I write what I do?
I write all over the map (literally and figuratively) but, in general, I write what I do because I like to take a bit of this and a bit of that (usually unlikely people and/or dissimilar things) and see what happens when the two combine. I am also a professional dilettante. I get restless if I’m not investigating something new. I am a writer of the “I think through writing” ilk. On good days, I thank writing for keeping my mind open and considering.

4) How does your writing process work?
On a very mundane level: my process is propelled by routine. It is wonderful to know I am going to wake up at 5:30AM, go to the gym, drop my son off at school, go to a café and writewritewrite, go home for lunch, do some writing-related work (admin, school visits, mentoring or editing), writewritewrite, listen to music, make dinner or go to dinner with friends, read a bit, go to sleep by 10:30PM and then wake up and do it all again tomorrow. If there are weeks of this, I am happy and entranced. The creative benefits of a routine were affirmed for me when I read this interview with Haruki Murakami in the Paris Review. (To quote: “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”)

On a more general level: my process is bewilderingly slow. Long periods of gestation. Bouts of low morale. Moments when the manuscript feels about as appealing as a cold and wet log covered with giant slugs. Moments of inspiration. Moments of pragmatism—i.e. a final push to finish so as to feed the children.

And, last but not least, here are the two fabulous authors whom I’ve invited to join this tour. They will post their entries on June 23rd.

SARA O’LEARY is the co-creator with Julie Morstad of The Henry Books published by Simply Read: WHEN YOU WERE SMALL, WHERE YOU CAME FROM, and WHEN I WAS SMALL. Their latest book, THIS IS SADIE, will be published by Tundra Books in 2015. Also, in 2015 Sara will be producing a series of baby books for Owl Books. She blogs at

VIKKI VANSICKLE is the author of the acclaimed Clarissa books (WORDS THAT START WITH B; LOVE IS A FOUR-LETTER WORD; DAYS THAT END IN Y). Frequently referred to as “Canada’s Judy Blume,” Vikki’s most recent middle grade novel, SUMMER DAYS, STARRY NIGHTS, has been called “Summer reading at its best.” After obtaining an MA in Children’s Literature from UBC, Vikki’s career began in bookselling at The Flying Dragon Bookshop, which earned her the 2011 CBA Young Bookseller of the Year award. She is a popular children’s lit blogger and is frequently called upon to speak about kids’ books for radio panels, conferences, and as Lainey Gossip’s YA mentor! Currently she balances writing with her duties as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Young Readers at Penguin Canada. She blogs at

(Images: “Maria Callas with her Poodle”; “You Are Here Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination” by Katharine Harmon)

Quiet Infinity

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One of my best friends, Nancy Friedland, is a brilliant artist and among the many amazing images she has created is this one showing a woman asleep on a lawnchair. It is not the sleep of someone sun-dozing. It is the Sleep of Oblivion. I happen to know that the woman pictured is Nancy’s mother. I also know that at the time the photograph was taken she had three young children and was studying for a graduate degree in Occupational Therapy, every minute accounted for.

There is something subversive about the sight of a woman who is always on call, always in a heightened state of watchfulness and awareness momentarily checking out—zoning into her own internal infinity. We all deserve moments of quiet eternity.

There is so much finitude in the lives of the mother artists I know. We are so often counting (time, money, errands, coffee.) We are too often irritable and impatient with our children, counting the hours until bedtime, and this makes us uneasy and sometimes ashamed.

I want for every overextended artist in my life long stretches of unclaimed time and solitude, vast space to get bored and lost, waking dreams that take us beyond the calculative surface of things.

I love these lawnchairs (also by Nancy Friedland.) I look at them and think: here you go. Here is your way back to infinity, back to the woods and that deep creative and contemplative mind. Deep in the sod, in the infinite sub-terre, that’s where work happens.

(p.s. Support working artists and artisans. Buy art! Your heart and walls will thank you.)

Three Things About Penguins

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#1. A few books.

As a teenager, I was infatuated with those early Penguin paperbacks. They were well priced and came in a spectrum of colours: orange, green, dark blue, purple, yellow. Often I’d go to the old bookshops on Queen West in Toronto and pick up a George Bernard Shaw or Graham Greene for $1.00.

(Vintage Penguin and Pelican Paperbacks, The Monkey’s Paw, Toronto.)

#2. A film.

“There was a boy and there was penguin, strangers from the opposite sides of the ocean…” This animated version of the lovely and gentle children’s book by Oliver Jeffers is one of the nicest adaptations I’ve seen (Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is another.) The former is quite different to the picturebook—arguably less saccharine, the boy slightly more complicated, which I prefer.

#3. A protest.

For more info on the campaign to free Tarek Loubani and John Greyson, who have been unjustly detained in a Cairo prison since August 16th, please see:

(The penguin costumes were my eldest son’s idea. He has a small role in JG’s next film, playing “Tango,” a chick raised by two penguin papas, Roy and Silo—AKA the famous couple of Central Park Zoo.)