Author spotlight: Jacqueline Dumas

Jacqueline Dumas’s latest novel is The Heart Begins Here (Inanna Publications, 2018). Her previous writing includes two published novels: Madeleine & the Angel and The Last Sigh (Fifth House); a children’s picture book: And I’m Never Coming Back (Annick Press); and a one-act play, Secrets, which was produced at the 2013 Edmonton International Fringe Festival. She has extensive experience in the book business, including ownership and management of two bookshops in Edmonton, Alberta. She moved to Nova Scotia in July 2013. (Photo Credit: Nicola Davison)

First of all, happy Pride Month! As the former owner of Orlando Books in Edmonton, how do you think the Canadian publishing landscape has changed for 2SLGBTQ+ writers from the nineties to now?

And Happy Pride to you! The publishing landscape has changed for everyone, and in an especially expansive way for 2SLGBTQ+ writers. What’s interesting now is that despite the demise of many independent presses, the dominance of the internet means writers don’t need to find a traditional publisher anymore, or be subject to the whims of the day. You can self-publish without having to satisfy the demands of a conventional editor or sales force; you can find your audience on-line. On the other hand, while social media has opened up avenues for being heard that weren’t available before, audiences seem quite compartmentalized now, with many readers only wanting to read what they already know about, or what they think they know about.

In this new digital reality, your work quickly disappears if you’re not good at self-promotion. Even writers with traditional publishers are expected to spend a lot of time and energy publicizing themselves. When I started out in the 1980s, the writer was expected to write and the publisher was expected to sell. The publisher would arrange readings, interviews and reviews across the country, all to a broad reading public. Media outlets at the time were required to carry a certain amount of Canadian content, so if you managed to get published, you were pretty much guaranteed publicity on radio and TV, and each major newspaper had a solid book section with knowledgeable critics, so your book was met with a healthy dose of diverse reviews. Current media conglomeration means that a small number of writers receive a single, centralized review that’s reproduced across the country, so if you’re lucky to get one, you have to hope it’s a good one.

What brought you from Alberta to Nova Scotia?

I was in my late sixties, living in Edmonton surrounded by young men from across the country who had come to Alberta to earn big bucks and burn rubber up and down Whyte Avenue in their brand new heavy-duty, fully loaded pickup trucks, the kind with the massive wheels and spikey hubcaps, and I asked myself: What am I still doing here? My daughter had moved to Toronto, given birth to twins, and my partner, Mary, who is from Newfoundland, was missing the ocean. So there was a double pull east, to be closer to my daughter and grandkids and back to the sea (with better weather than Newfoundland).

I love Nova Scotia. Looking back, I see Alberta as the place I was always trying to leave. I was born there, and over the years I would go off and live somewhere else only to end up in Alberta again, usually because of a relationship. I miss the landscape, its mix of mountains and lakes and prairie and aspen parkland, but I abhor its extreme politics that promotes the devastation of the environment to fill the greed of a few.

Have you noticed any interesting similarities or differences between Prairie and East Coast writing?

I think both writing spaces are defined in large part by the landscape—here on the East Coast, the seascape. Looking across the Prairies is like gazing across a vast ocean, looking out to the horizon. Both regions are away from the traditional centres of power in our country, away from its cultural centres. Perhaps, as a result, we tend to look more outward, look to what’s out there.

I was very glad that the Writers’ Fed paired us together for the 2018 Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program. I learned so much from you during our time together. As a mentor, what was the experience like for you?

In a word: invigorating. For me, it was a brilliant if somewhat unlikely pairing. You freshened me up: a young writer filled with enthusiasm and a strong work ethic who was a joy to work with. It helped that I loved what you were working on. I looked forward each time we met to our discussions. And being a mentor was good for my own writing. Analyzing your manuscript for what worked and didn’t work, then having to articulate it, was an exercise that transferred over to what I was working on. At your reading, I felt so proud seeing you stand up there and take your place. I can’t wait to read the final version of Wonder World when it’s finally released.

Your latest novel, The Heart Begins Here, covers some serious topics, but you also had me laughing out loud as your poor protagonist struggles through a dismal reading by an overconfident and self-obsessed poet at her independent bookstore. With all of the events you’ve hosted or attended over the years, what are your tips to ensure a good experience for both author and audience?

It’s good to keep in mind that apart from selling books, the goal of a reading is to engage and entertain, so 15 to 20 minutes should be the maximum length. You want to leave your audience craving more, not silently praying for an ordeal to end. Your piece should have a beginning and an end and be edited for the ear. Writing is a solitary occupation, so it can be difficult to be suddenly standing in the spotlight. Remind yourself that the audience has come because they’re interested in what you have to say. Make eye contact with them during the introduction, then be fully present while you’re reading.

The host needs to control the Q & A, put a limit on the number of questions. And it does no harm to have good drinks and snacks.

Allison Bechdel’s long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For also featured a progressive bookshop, and I’m a huge fan of Venus Envy here in Halifax. Why do you think 2SLGBTQ+ folks have historically gravitated to bookstores? And what does the local queer community lose if these spaces go away?

Perhaps I can best answer this question by referring specifically to Orlando Books, which was a queer, progressive space in Edmonton. I opened the bookshop in 1993 and closed it in 2002. During that time, Alberta’s 2SLGBTQ+ community was still quite closeted (this was a time when you could lose your job if you were a teacher or a health care worker, for example), so the bookshop was a safe space for the queer community, a space where you didn’t have to justify your existence. I think it was especially important for young people to be able to come in and see what information was available. There was a high school in the neighbourhood (the one my daughter had gone to) whose principal claimed the school with its student population of over 1,000 had “no gay students.” The bookstore didn’t just sell books and promote writers; we sponsored and sold tickets to live events, including the monthly women’s dances, garnered donations to support human-rights cases, put up book tables at events in the general community (e.g., the teachers’ conventions), etc. People from out of town routinely came to us for information on queer friendly spots in the city. A lot of that information is online nowadays, but I still think it’s important to have our own physical spaces, to not be completely absorbed by general society. I think we find ourselves by defining ourselves in our own spaces.

Your book is set in 2001 and was published by Inanna in 2018. Is it fair to say you ruminated on this story for a long time? I don’t mean this as a criticism, it gives me hope for my unfinished work! I am curious what helped you return to this project, and what advice you might have for writers with their own dusty manuscript or cobwebbed Word document at home?

The short answer? I’m a slow writer. There’s also a longer answer. When I started working on The Heart Begins Here, I was in the middle of writing a historical novel, tentatively titled Sacred Heart. This novel dealt with the 1870s Northwest, a pivotal time in the history of Western Canada. I had researched what I could find on Indigenous history, on the treaties, the smallpox epidemics, the resistances, examined photographs of the times, studied canoe routes, conducted interviews, sifted through the Oblate archives, the archives of the Grey Nuns, read between the lines for what was missing, fleshed out all my characters and the plot lines. Gradually I came to realize there was an important part of the story that wasn’t mine to tell, and the book couldn’t be written without it. Because of all the work I had put in, the book hung around a while before I abandoned the project totally. This process slowed down work on the new book. During this time I also went back to school to complete a Master’s degree.

The end of the story is that when I did finish The Heart Begins Here in 2015, it was rejected by a few publishers before Inanna accepted it, and then it was another couple of years before it actually saw the light of day.

With travel being a no-go lately, have you read any books that have transported you in some way?

I could go on and on, but I’ll mention three books that I keep close and are particularly relevant to what I’m working on at the moment.

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante. Reading her is a bit like meandering through Proust’s garden of words, where you get helplessly, delightfully lost in the verbiage. There is so much life going on in a single Ferrante sentence.

And because I’m working on a memoir myself, two books: First, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. She has an amazing ability to make the intensely personal, universal. A concise, journalistic style that is the opposite of a writer like Ferrante. And interesting that you bring up Alison Bechdel. Her graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, boings all my buttons. It’s a brilliant chronicle of the various layers and intersections of the personal with the political over the years—a book for dykes of my generation.

In addition to your three novels, you’ve also written a children’s book and a play. Do you have a favourite genre to work in? Or is that like asking a parent to pick their favourite child?

This parent’s favourite child is the novel, which might soon be replaced in my affections by the memoir I’m working on.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

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