the January/February 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine
I Know Here
Whoo! I feel like the rookie who, on the very first day she’s called up to the major leagues, knocks the ball clear out of Fenway Park. The rookie who, after her very lucky first hit, stands rooted beside home plate, thinking, Whatdid I just do?
That’s me, flash-frozen in disbelief — “whaaaaat!?!” — since I heard I Know Here won a 2010 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. Way, way, way beyond my daydreaming orbit, the news too surreal, too out-of-this-world abstract to hold in my mind for longer than a few seconds.
What I was able to grasp though was the little matter of an acceptance speech.
My acceptance speech. My ten-to-fifteen minute acceptance speech. My ten-to-fifteen minute acceptance speech to be printed afterward in The Horn Book Magazine.
No problem. No pressure. Easy-peasy.
For someone else.
All summer — obsessively, some in my family might say — I thought about it. I asked, “What am I going to tell them?” Finally, my husband, Mike, said, “Just tell them your story. That’s what they want to hear. It’s a good one.
And so that’s what I’m going to do tonight. I’m going to tell you my story. The story of how I Know Here came to be written. It is a good one.
First I had to figure out where to begin. Initially, I was going to steal a paragraph from my website, where I talk about becoming a writer — a simple in-and-out, cut-and-paste job. “For a very long time I dreamed about being a writer,” I say, “but I never actually got around to…well, writing. Dreaming about writing was fun and it was easy, until one morning I woke up and said, ‘I have to do this. Now.’ And I enrolled at Ryerson University in the fall of 2003.”
That’s the safe place for me to dive in, but it’s not the right spot. I need to back up a bit and start, not at Ryerson, but in a doctor’s office in 2002, a month or so after I’d had surgery for lung cancer.
Mike and I were there to discuss treatment options with the oncologist. There weren’t any. He told us that radiation wasn’t necessary. He told us that chemo for my kind of cancer was being tested but wasn’t available. He told us that successful surgery, like mine, was about as hopeful as hopeful gets with lung cancer. As we were leaving, he gave me some advice, the only tangible option he could offer. He said, “Don’t wait five years to live your dreams.”
For the longest time, actually up until I wrote the previous couple of paragraphs, having survived lung cancer was not something I openly shared. I did not want to be defined by the disease, did not want to be branded, looked at differently, treated differently, pitied, did not want that letter C pinned to my shirt.
But of course it defines me — me before, me after — how could it not? And, more to the point, it defines — invades, pervades, and informs — my writing. A friend of mine once said, “Your stories embrace a melancholy sadness that is always wrapped in hope.”
Even today when I sit down to write, along with my dictionary, my thesaurus, my sticky notes, my pencil, and my laptop, I carry that doctor’s words to the table with me.
“Don’t wait five years to live your dreams.”
One morning, thanks to that doctor, I woke up and said, “I have to do this. Now.” In the fall of 2003, I enrolled at Ryerson in a continuing education class called “True to Life: Writing Your Own Story.” I stopped dreaming about writing and — unsure, self-doubting, terrified — I began to write.
I am a steadfast believer in serendipity — a gift from my illness — and, as it happens, the very first class assignment was this: draw a map of your earliest remembered neighborhood. Bring this neighborhood to life and then tell a story from the map.
My father was an engineer, heavy construction. He built roads and subways and dams in Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. I was a construction child. By the time I was fourteen, I’d moved nine times. That writing assignment transported me back to living beside a dam site in Saskatchewan just before leaving for Toronto. I was four when I arrived and barely turned seven when I left. And the memories of that time became the nucleus, the heart, of I Know Here.
My brother, Doug, two years older, has lots of “it-was-a-great-place-to-live” memories, but he doesn’t remember it quite the same way my younger sister and I do. For Kathie and me it was home. It was our world and, except for the hill — “a good tobogganing hill when it snows” — we thought it was flat. For Doug it was a home. It wasn’t his first remembered neighborhood. He was old enough to know the world was round, that our stay in Saskatchewan was temporary.
I didn’t do what the little girl in the book does. I didn’t draw a picture of everything I knew and loved and wanted to remember and then fold it up and put it safe in my pocket to bring with me to Toronto. But I remembered.
Memories that are in the book — the road, the trailers, the howl of the wolf, the smell of the fox, the stare of the moose, the forest fire, the airplane. And memories that aren’t in the book —
Splashing in the swimming pool that Perini, the company my dad worked for, built so we could cool down on dusty-hot summer days;
Reeling in my first fish — a pike, from the North Saskatchewan River — and insisting on eating it for dinner, ninety-five percent bones;
Hunting for loose change on the ground behind our trailer after my parents’ party, after the martinis, after the fathers on our road hung upside-down from the monkey bars;
Dancing in and out of a rain cloud parked above the middle of the road — “It’s raining.” “It’s not raining.” “It’s raining.” “It’s not.”
Kathie, the frog catcher in the book, says of I Know Here: “Each time I read it, I have such a deep sense of home and belonging that it’s beyond words.”
I feel the same way. Only I found the words.
And, by some miracle — did I mention I am a steadfast believer in serendipity? — over a number of years, after many, many fits and starts, and many, many rewrites, that first assignment became I Know Here. A book.
I had a lot of help writing I Know Here: thank you, Beth Kaplan, for getting me started and keeping me going; thank you, Peter Carver and Ted Staunton, for encouragement along the way; and, thank you, Tim Wynne-Jones, for saying, “Send this off! Now! It’s really good.”
Thank you, Matt James — a huge I-can’t-thank-you-enough thank you — for your wonderful, full of wonder, art. For making my story our story.
Thank you, Patsy Aldana, Michael Solomon, Nan Froman, Kate McQuaid, Fred Horler, and everyone else at Groundwood Books. You are a dream publisher. Better than a dream.
Thank you, Roger Sutton, for noticing I Know Here. And for somehow figuring out that the dam my father helped build was, indeed, the E. B. Campbell Hydroelectric Station, completed in 1963.
Thank you, Boston Globe–Horn Book Award judges, for giving me this chance to play in the big leagues, alongside John Burningham and Jerry Pinkney. It’s an unbelievable honor.
And last, but always first with me, my family. My husband, Mike; my daughters, Shannon, Caitie, and Allie; my son, Jake. As much as I began writing for myself seven years ago, I also began writing for you. To give you something of me, something of us. Something tangible.
|From the January/February 2011 issue of The
Horn Book Magazine