Blog Hop: Una McDonnell–The Whole Yummy-Messy Smash

Thanks to the lovely Tess Fragoulis for including in me in the Blog Hop, and letting me hop right onto her blog to do it!

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Una McDonnell

What am I working on?

I’m working on a book of short stories I started during an MFA in Creative Writing with the amazing Zsuszi Gartner, who taught me how to unleash my own voice as a short fiction writer. I don’t know whose style I was trying to write before, but it was some safe, bland compilation of a “literary” voice. For the first class, I’d written this truly horrible last line in a story, involving one tenacious leaf hanging from a winter branch. Zsuszi and the gang—we later named ourselves “The Tenacious Leaves”— facilitated that breakthrough moment in which I could finally see how I was getting in my own way as a writer. Once I kicked the nasty self-imposed critic, with all her “shoulds,” off my shoulder, the writing and my enjoyment of it opened up. That’s the book I’m working on now, The Hard Problem of Consciousness.

In the title story, I was interested in that particular problem of consciousness in which there is no logical reason why we should have experience, or a rich inner life, as part of the meat-machine processes of mind. How then do we share our experience? Or as Betty Goodwin asks in one her preliminary sketches, “How long does it take one voice to reach another?” I like playing with that in story—how little of what we mean gets across once its been through the filter of our personality and the listener’s own psychological makeup. The extraordinary capacity of language and its failures. I find I’m always drawn to books and movies with interweaving story lines and characters. I have a triptych in the book that takes place on one night in a small village (very like the one I live in) with three characters in the middle of various crises that draw direct and indirect connections between them.

I also have a mostly-completed book of poems and half a novel and a small business. Starting a business is like pushing a huge boulder off a mountain peak, then getting in front and running. The boulder is slowing down and my legs are way stronger than when I started. So, right now, the stories. I’m learning to focus.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This is the sort of question I wouldn’t have the first clue how to answer. It’s hard to see my own work objectively. One thing I’ve decided about other people’s art—to dispel that feeling that I’d have to take survey courses covering the whole of human history in every discipline to properly “understand” it—is that if a work engages me on numerous levels, then it’s working for me. A Betty Goodwin mixed media piece challenges me intellectually and visually, cracks me open and gives me goosebumps. That method of engagement with art has a corollary for my own work: that the best I can do is develop my craft and strive to be authentic. The writing I most admire has spiritual grit, and by that I mean, it’s earnest in the best sense of the word, but has its feet on the ground too. It feels elemental, like a brilliant new idea, yet one that resonates in my most hidden self, and I wish I’d written it. I try to write the work that in a parallel universe, I would wish I’d written.

Why do I write what I do?

It’s nice to be asked to talk about writing, and I enjoy reading factual articles and memoirs, but so far, the only kind of writing I love to do is fictional. In fact, I wither under the mental organization of other kinds of writing and of life tasks in general. The regular world, with its exigencies and details makes me tired. I can feel a nap coming on right now…

I write fiction and poetry because those forms engender more epiphanic moments than anything else I could do. So, yup, I chase that feeling. Everyone has had those seconds in the morning mirror, when, for some reason, time slows, and you can see yourself, really see yourself, briefly, from a slightly different angle, as though a veil has dropped, and you think, “My God, that’s me, I am Me.” You are both more familiar and more a stranger to yourself in those moments. Or as one of my characters, an adolescent girl named Tanya, says, (cause, lets face it, my characters know much more than I do), you get pulled “into the big old world and every living thing we share it with, all the animals and trees, rivers and caves, stars in the sky, and everyone, the whole implausible, irreconcilable, yummy-messy smash.”

The specifics come based on whatever gets lodged in my mind or body and haunts me until I let it out.

How does my writing process work?

Before a first draft, I spend a lot of time working when I’m not working. I need to fill my life with the right things in order to write well—time in the world of nature, time to read, and some good old-fashioned loafing about on the couch and staring at the ceiling with a song like Springsteen’s The River on a repeat loop, à la my sixteen-year-old self. Caffeine helps. Sometimes wine. Long drives are good. So is sleeping on it. Once I can feel the story, feel the emotion of the idea, character, or question that’s asking to be written, then I can face the blank screen.

When it gets down to writing the story, I have to say, I have a pretty unstructured mind, so sometimes laying down a structure frees me up to delve into character and ideas. I want the content and the form of the story to work together and I really enjoy playing with that. Revision is my favourite part of writing, where I really develop the characters, the line by line craft, etc. The best I can hope for in a first draft is that I get the voice on the page. Most of it gets cut later, and everything else is re-writing. If my writing process were a poem, it would be Steven Heighton’s Ballad of the Slow Road.

I’m most productive at writer’s residencies, where I can be locked away in my room with a view, but know that there are great people working near-by, stimulating conversation and a cuppa tea or a pint waiting when I’m ready to leave my bubble. So right now I’m renting a studio with the writer Lesley Buxton in the Farrellton Artist Space in an old, country school housing 20 other artists. It hasn’t produced as much beer-drinking as I’d like, but I’m getting work done.

I’m passing the rabbit’s foot over to playwright, poet, short-story writer, and fibre artist, S.Lesley Buxton, who is currently writing a Memoir through Dalhousie’s King’s College based on her beautiful and heart-breaking blog Fall On Me, Dear. And to poet, Dilys Leman, (who will also post on Lesley’s blog) great-great-granddaughter of Dr. Augustus Jukes, senior surgeon of the North-West Mounted Police during the 1885 Rebellion. Dilys’ new book, The Winter Court (McGill-Queens University Press), challenges the official story about the roll of First Nations in that rebellion through a mix of original poems and reconstituted archival texts.

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Una McDonnell has performed at literary readings and music festivals, on top of café tables (to get a gig), and on one occasion in a boxing ring (she won her round). She attended the 2002 Banff Wired Writing Studio and the 2003 Sage Hill Poetry Colloquium and has a Masters of Fine Arts from UBC. She has published work in Arc, Prairie Fire, Written in the Skin: A Poetic Response to Aids, and Musings: An Anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature.

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Your Secret is Safe with Me–Part 3

Part 1, Part 2

Philomena Zapponi owned a button shop on what was called Tailor’s Row by the locals. It had been opened by her grandmother Delphina after her grandfather Cosimo was lost at sea. As Delphina packed her dead husband’s clothes to donate to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, she found herself unable to part with the shiny buttons on his ceremonial uniform. Before she could stop herself, she had cut them all off, and not only those fine gold buttons, but all the lesser buttons on his shirts, on his trousers, on his winter coat. She absolved herself of her guilt over this act of vandalism by telling herself that buttons were inexpensive, and even the poorest parishioners could afford them. They were, after all, still getting Cosimo’s fine clothes—a blessing, with or without the buttons. Delphina collected his in a big glass jar, which she placed on the dresser across her bed. As there was no body to bury, no grave site to visit and tend, she polished the jar and its contents daily and spoke to it every night before she went to sleep.

“Oh Cosimo,” she said, “the children are sneezing and skinny as gypsies, the city has turned off the gas, and it’s so cold under the blankets without you.” Sometimes, when the moon was full, a flame ignited inside Delphina, and she told the jar secrets she would have never dared tell Cosimo while he was alive, then pasted her lips against the cool glass and did things with the buttons she could never tell anyone.

There was no pension for the widows of seamen, so Delphina’s pantry emptied day by day, her children’s shoes wore out, and her spirit waned. Without any skills other than those of a housewife, she was forced to sell off her jewelry, then her imported china and crystal, then the inessential furniture, and finally the essential, until the house was almost bare and the children slept in flour sacks on the floor. She could not, however, part with the jar of buttons. Desperate, hungry, and humiliated, Delphina wept into it, corroding the buttons with her salty tears, begging Cosimo, God, the buttons for a solution to her woes. “You could have asked earlier,” all three might have justifiably replied, “before the children were forced to wear rubber tires on their feet, and before little Agatha developed rickets.” But Cosimo had been a kind man, and even God had His moments of compassion. The buttons, the most practical of the trinity, shone brightly and screamed “Sell me! Sell me! Sell me!”

And thus Delphina’s Button Shoppe came into being—first in what had been their living room, and eventually in the storefront on Tailor’s Row. Delphina greeted customer’s from behind a long glass display case, where the shop’s finest buttons rested like gems on velvet cushions. They were illuminated from above by a chandelier of Bohemian crystal that sprinkled the whole shop with stardust. On the side walls were large gold frames that displayed all manner of buttons like abstract pointillist art, their copies kept in the little drawers of an ebony apothecary cabinet so immense that it took up the entire back wall. No other shop carried as large and eclectic a selection of splendid buttons made of rare wood, of ivory, of hand-blown glass. And even after Velcro and plastic snaps invaded the market, barnacling themselves like zebra mussels to otherwise respectable garments, the most discerning and difficult-to-please seamstresses and tailors still frequented Delphina’s shop in search of the perfect button.

Soon Delphina’s house was filled with furniture much finer than the hand-me-downs that she and Cosimo had been given as wedding gifts. The children skipped to school in new shoes of the butteriest, most expensive leather. Agatha was attended to by a specialist who fed her oranges and grapefruits until she stood up straight and glowed as if sun-kissed. And although Delphina never married again, she was the most sought after guest at balls on Tailor’s Row, where she danced the cha-cha and the rumba in beautiful dresses, bedizened with the most exquisite buttons money could buy.

After Delphina’s death at the age of 79, the shop was passed down to Agatha, who was efficient but nowhere near as glamourous as her mother. And when Agatha got so old that she confused a box of pink and black striped enamel buttons for licorice candy, she was promptly placed in a nursing home by her children, where all of her clothes were fastened with Velcro. This encouraged her to flash other patients, orderlies, unsuspecting visitors, and her children when they came, which was not often. The sound of the two prickly strips being ripped apart made Agatha laugh out loud, and she would do it over and over, much to the chagrin of everyone, especially her only son, Augusto, who was the first to stop visiting.

It was expected that Philomena, the youngest, would take the reigns. None of her three sisters, and certainly not her brother Augusto, wanted anything to do with “the button racket” as they called it. “Philomena, you’re the most organized,” insisted Melina, the pretty sister who had snagged a rich husband at the Tailors’ Spring Cotillion. “Philomena, you are the most knowledgeable,” pointed out Lucretia, the brainy sister who had gone to medical school while Philomena toiled behind the button counter from the age of six onwards, enduring her mother’s incessant criticism, obeying her increasingly bizarre whims. “Philomena, we have families who need us,” argued Augusto and Delphi, the oldest daughter who was named after her illustrious grandmother.

Though this was all true, Philomena couldn’t see how this excused them. They had jobs they went to every morning, jobs that the buttons had provided by putting them through school, and by making their suits more appealing and professional-looking at interviews. Were they really prepared to deny the power of a properly-chosen and well-placed button? These were good arguments, which might have even moved her siblings to contribute at least some of their time to the family business had Philomena actually pronounced them. But just as she had never been able to stand up to her mother, she proved equally inept at standing up to her siblings. She just nodded dumbly as they left the shop, and as if foreordained by the jar of her grandfather’s buttons itself, Philomena became the Button Mistress, or the Button Spinster, or the Old Crazy Button Lady, depending on who was speaking of her, friend or foe.

More buttons coming up…

Your Secret is Safe with Me–Part 1

Here is the first installment from my collection of stories In Love with the Dead. Like the serialized stories of old, I will be posting two sections a week, so get on board and enjoy the ride!

For reasons he couldn’t explain, people kept telling Bruce Lanzieri things that were none of his business: in elevators, in laundromats, in movie line-ups—wherever he went. It hadn’t always been so, and the first time it happened, he thought nothing of it. He was standing at the corner of Bank Street and Antique Alley, waiting for the light to change, when an old woman squinted at him through tortoise-shell glasses. “You look just like my brother Harry,”she said, sniffing the air like an offended cat. “He’s been dead now, 3 years.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Bruce replied, hiding his discomfort behind a sympathetic smile.
“We weren’t that close,” the old woman added, “never really got along.” She blinked a few times, and seemed to be done, but Bruce noticed a strange light in her eyes, a sparkle mixed in with a hint of anxiety. “It’s my fault, really,” she continued, her voice tinctured with remorse. “I always resented him because Mother thought he was the cat’s pajamas. So at night, after everyone was asleep, I’d sneak into his room and pour apple juice on his sheets.”

The next day, a woman with a blonde beehive mistook him for the high school sweetheart she’d never forgotten; then an old man with a parrot for a long lost friend he’d betrayed; then a man with a mole on his brow for a forgiven enemy. The reason, perhaps, for these optical delusions was that Bruce didn’t look like anybody in particular, thus he looked like everybody and was a threat to no one. It baffled him that even after these strangers realized their error, they divulged a secret they had never told anyone else. Soon they were approaching him in such great numbers that no matter what their shape or size, their age or even their gender, they blended into one non-descript being, as indistinguishable as a tree in a overgrown forest. At most, Bruce might remember an accoutrement or a physical oddity: the tortoise shell glasses; a red purse; a tie strewn with sunflowers; the startling mole, large and puffy as a nipple.

In the beginning, Bruce often wondered which came first, the wish to confess or his arrival at the traffic light? He no longer asked such questions. He accepted that he had been chosen by some higher power to receive their secrets, plain and simple, So instead of fighting it, he did what any reasonable man would do. Bruce quit his job as a schoolteacher to dedicate himself to his new calling full-time. He’d read somewhere that if he did what he loved, the money would follow. So he gave himself a title, and advertised on laundromat bulletin boards, in community papers, on telephone poles around the neighbourhood:

Bruce Lanzieri, Cryptotelist—Your secret is safe with me!

For one dollar the burdened could send him a secret anonymously, and in return they would feel, if not absolved, then at least relieved of carrying it around, afraid that it might slip out after a few drinks and ruin them. He provided his home address in these advertisements, and the secrets, with their accompanying dollars, began trickling into his mail slot:

Every time I walk on a subway grate, I pray it won’t collapse.
My husband’s twin brother is the father of our son.
I cheated my way through medical school.

Bruce made two piles on his kitchen table—one for the secrets, another for the dollar bills—which gradually grew taller as the weeks passed. Then, like a ripple in the ocean’s depth that gains strength as it travels towards the shore, the trickle became a tidal wave of mail. More than Bruce could read, more than he could count, more than he knew what to do with frankly. Mailbags bursting with longings, transgressions, wishes for revenge began filling up every room, floor to ceiling, of the small house he’d rented on his teacher’s salary. Soon it was difficult to get to the front door if someone rang—most often Murray the postman, who was none too pleased.

“Mr. Lanzieri,” he said one morning after he’d made three trips to his mail truck and was about to make a forth, “I got two things to say to you.” This was unusual as Murray generally dumped the bags on the stoop, rang the bell and was on his way before Bruce could make it to the door. He looked at the little bald man kindly, ready to receive his confidences. But Murray’s only secret was his lisp, which gave his advice the ring of truth. “You need to move to a bigger house,” he began, looking past Bruce’s body into the mailbag cramped hallway, “ and you gotta stop putting your address in them ads. This town is full of scallywags and crooks, and if they ain’t interested in the money,” he held an air mail envelope to the light, “they’s gonna want the secrets.”

Indeed, the dollar bill was visible through the thin blue paper, and so was the secret in its bold black letters. Murray shook his head as he went back for the last bag, and after Bruce dragged all four into the house he began the gargantuan task of opening the newly-arrived envelopes. With the stacks of dollar bills he extracted from inside, he bought a large house that was not on Murray’s route, for which the lisping postman was eternally grateful. The house’s six rooms, as well as the basement, both bathrooms and the attic, were immediately overrun by secrets, which multiplied and spread like jack rabbits. Bruce confined himself to the living room with its brown fold-out couch, and the adjoining kitchen, where he sometimes used the sink as a toilet. But since he lived alone, no one was the wiser, and from the letters he received, he knew he wasn’t the only one.

That was the saddest and most endearing quality of the secrets: so many were the same, but their owners were convinced that no other person in the history of the world had ever had sex with a cousin, regretted having children, or wished their spouse would never come back from war. And heaven help them if the husband actually got blown up by a roadside bomb, or the child fell through the window screen at a neighbor’s birthday party, or the cousin gave birth to a baby with a curly vestigial tail. Then they would flog themselves daily with a wet cat ‘o nine tails, a bamboo switch, a wire hanger, and might have done so indefinitely had Bruce not come along with his offer of respite for a buck. He was providing a valuable service, and in appreciation he was not only compensated financially, he was also sent a wife…

Part 2