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February 2012


By Blog

I like to take walks and stuff things I find in my pockets (and mind) for later use. I’ve always benefited from a magpie approach.

I recently came across an artist who made scavenging the source of her work. Rosalie Gascoigne (25 January 1917 – 25 October 1999) was a New Zealander-Australian sculptor who only began practicing as a serious artist at the age of 59. She went on to represent Australia in the Venice Biennale. Her wooden boxed assemblages were all composed of materials she found while on scavenging expeditions in the Canberra hinterland.

I love the way she describes her relaxed peripatetic approach (there is so much trust and so little strain): “I think that I spent a lot of time being sort of restless and out of step with everybody and restless, and not knowing what it was. And then I came to this thing I could do and it grew. And all you had to do was, as it were, hang loose, and just use your eye.”

(Rosalie Gascoigne, Magpie, 1998. 
Sawn wood on wood.)

Leaping Lessons

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As a writer, I often retreat physically. As a parent, retreat is impossible. I am always being drawn out of my lair. Even though I like to practice benign neglect and don’t chaperone my sons through their free time unless absolutely required, my children are constantly catapulting me into the world.

Part of it is their sheer physicality. Galumphing and noodle-limbed, I can’t resist watching them move. Yesterday was a school holiday so we went to the gym to play basketball. For some reason, the gym was populated by a dozen members of the Chicago Bulls. This is only a slight exaggeration. Picture a handful of ill-coordinated small boys (my own included) playing with a crew of teenage smooth-shooters. It was pretty hilarious. At one end, there was my youngest son ducking and swerving as if caught in a bombing raid. At the other end, there was my eldest flailing his arms around like a crazy semaphore flagman. (Eventually my eldest stopped moving entirely and just stood in the middle of the gym, slack-jawed with eyebrows hiked to his hairline.) I was dumbstruck, too. For the next hour, I sat back and watched the big boys leap around while a booming hiphop mix played in the background. I’m going to go out on a hyperbolic limb and say it was transcendent. Really, it choked me up—the dancerly grace of the young men, the buoyant rhythm of their high-tops on the court, the arcing arrow’s flight of the ball… What especially got to me were the faces of the young boys in the room, each one tracking the big boys as if they were watching wizards in motion, or dreaming of themselves in ten years time.

I spend so much time with words, I can’t tell you how transporting it is to watch things that are essentially wordless. Yesterday was a reminder that an active body is as worth admiring as an active mind.

(Picture: “Leap into the Void” by Yves Klein, 1960.)

How To See A Tree

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A drawing gains its strength from paying close attention to the world, which, as poet Ted Kooser points out, is “as important to good writing as is good writing itself.” Perhaps it was with the intention of being a better writer that, a few years ago, I set myself a drawing exercise. From March to May, I drew the cherry tree outside our kitchen window every day. I drew it with pencil and ink, charcoal and watercolour. I started at the end of winter when there was snow on the branches and kept drawing as buds and leaves and blossoms appeared. The blossoms fell and the rain came and the sidewalk grew slick with white confetti. Green nubs appeared where the flowers had been. I stopped drawing just before the cherries ripened but by then I knew every knot, gnarl and branch on the tree.

This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine contained a beautiful piece called “how To see a Tree” by Michael Kimmelman which features five pages of glorious photographs by “tree stalking” Mitch Epstein. Moody and romantic, towering and totemic, it’s amazing to learn that all of these trees (including the ancient English elm shown above and a massive weeping beech) were shot on the streets of NYC.

p.s. Ted Kooser’s meditative new picture book, House Held Up by Trees, is out this Spring. With illustrations by Jon Klassen, it promises to be a heart-satisfying and eye-pleasing experience.

Stray Love Trailer

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My husband and I made this trailer for my forthcoming novel using a mishmash of scenes from 1960s London and Saigon. My father— former CBC reporter Michael Maclear—makes a brief cameo. See if you can spot him (a younger, groovier incarnation).

p.s. I have a new Facebook page for book information. If you wish to stay in touch, please “like” it.

Early Sketches

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There are so many fantastic children’s book blogs but one of my new favorites is “Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.” Jules Danielson is a librarian and wonderfully compulsive appreciator of all things illustrated. This week she invited Isabelle Arsenault to share early sketches for Virginia Wolf. Enjoy.

p.s. Jules also writes a weekly column over at Kirkus Reviews. You can read her thoughts on Virginia Wolf and other books about battling the blues here.

“Tenderly Forceful Aplomb”

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Yay! A starred review from Kirkus for Virginia Wolf (due out March 1st):

“In the literary bounty of books about bad moods and bad days, this one goes deeper than most, poignantly showing literal and metaphorical glimpses of real depression.

‘One day my sister Virginia woke up feeling wolfish. She made wolf sounds and did strange things,’ begins narrator Vanessa. Huddled in bed, only pointy ears showing, is a wolf. Virginia’s unable to bear the bright-yellow gingham of Vanessa’s dress or the sound of Vanessa brushing her own teeth. This is potent misery: ‘The whole house sank. Up became down. Bright became dim.’ Vanessa creeps into bed to comfort her sister, but what finally helps is painting. At the wolf’s suggestion, Vanessa paints a whimsical, expanding world called ‘Bloomsberry,’ bursting with blossoms, birds and magic. Arsenault reproduces the earlier “Up became down” spread but inverts its position and hue: Now objects waft upwards and the mood is buoyant. The wolf—previously a black near-silhouette with snout and tail, wearing a dress—morphs back into a girl. Wolf ears, silhouetted from behind, become a hair bow. Ink, pencil and paint deftly divide color from black-and-white as emotional symbolism. Lettering is carefully handwritten.

Knowledge of Virginia Woolf and her painter-sister Vanessa Bell is unnecessary; this works beautifully as a bat-day/bad-mood or animal-transformation tale, while readers who know actual depression will find it handled with tenderly forceful aplomb.” (Picture book. 5-10)