Michelle Barker's books on Goodreads
Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii
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The Beggar King The Beggar King
reviews: 8
ratings: 21 (avg rating 4.00)

Tesseracts 14: Strange Canadian Stories Tesseracts 14: Strange Canadian Stories
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ratings: 15 (avg rating 4.07)

Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales
reviews: 4
ratings: 14 (avg rating 3.79)

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God is in the Details


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about details.  

Breaking Bad is over, and if ever there was a show that paid attention to detail it was that one, from those ominous skull-tipped boots to the pink teddy bear with the missing eye that lands in Walt’s swimming pool.
After the finale I listened to Anna Gunn on Talking Bad compliment Vince Gilliganfor the care he took in incorporating minute detail into every scene he directed. It occurred to me that detail can make the difference in how we as readers or viewers believe in a scene.
In her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose has an excellent chapter on detail. “Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth,” she writes. It’s that one perfect detail that will nail a scene – the equivalent to Flaubert’s mot juste

But if God is in the details, remember there’s a flipside to that saying:  the devil is in them, too. 

 

The wrong details in a scene will leave your reader scratching his or her head in confusion. And perish the thought of the anachronistic detail – your reader might throw the book across the room.  A lack of detail creates vagueness and might send the message to your reader that you have not fully imagined your scene.  
In terms of characterization, the well-chosen detail – or, as New Zealand novelist Maurice Shadbolt calls it, the “precious particle” – can serve as a brilliant shorthand to nail a character even more effectively than long description would. If you want to go back to Breaking Bad (and I know you do), think of Bogdan’s eyebrows, Marie’s penchant for purple, Todd’s ringtone, Hector Salamanca’s bell. Notice that these are not particularly extreme (okay, maybe Bogdan’s eyebrows are extreme). But they’re memorable.
If the right detail makes a scene, too much detail can kill it. It’s a little like interior design. Tastefully done, it works. But too many paintings combined with too many frilled lampshades and embroidered cushions – and you cross the line into kitsch.
So how do you find that perfect detail, the one that makes your scene live for the reader? That’s the million-dollar question.  I find the simple exercise of closing my eyes and engaging all of my senses, being fully in the scene, can help.  I also find that my worst enemy is abstraction. Don’t say the room was a mess, or the attic stunk, or the shirt was ugly. The more specific you can be, the more your scene will come to life.
Probably the most helpful advice I’ve received?
Pay attention. To everything. And write it down. You’ll be surprised at the tiny details that come creeping into your scenes from real life.
Happy writing!

The Interview: Holley Rubinsky

Interview With Holley Rubinsky

Following on last week’s review of Holley Rubinsky‘s newest collection of short stories, South of Elfrida, I offer you Holley in her own words….

Tell us something most people don’t know about you:
I’ve had fibromyalgia for thirty years or more, now entangled with age-related osteoarthritis. I lost years in the wilderness of symptoms — muscle pain, exhaustion and other consequences of what is, essentially, a sleep disorder. Diagnosis was helpful, because I found resources that enabled me to deal with a chronic affliction. Rest and management of symptoms is key. I’ve had to be lazier, and have had the luxury to be lazier, than most people can get away with.
How did you become a writer?
Writing was the only way I could stay alive; I had (and still have) “issues” (as we say today) that vanish from my heart when handed over to a fictional character.
What is the most valuable piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
In Banff, Alistair MacLeod said: If Harry and Ray show up at the door, it’s important for the reader to know that Ray is a dog.
Being deliberately mysterious and “keeping the reader guessing” is what new writers sometimes do, mistaking unclear prose for narrative intrigue and tension.
Give us your Desert Island Reading List (the 3 books you’d choose to be stranded with):
A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night, by HH the Dalai Lama, an interpretation of Shantideva’s 8th century guide, The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life
(The premise of A Flash of Lightning…is to be aware of and control the negative emotions, especially those hurtful to others. Being alone on a desert island would not provide much practice… but, dealing with one’s own ego, physical body, personality and ramifications of personal history might be quite enough.
The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard relates the tale of Scott’s expedition to the South Pole from a man who was there. Nearly 600 pages of an adventure that would make a tropical island seem like paradise.
The Bird Watcher’s Anthology, compiled by Roger Tory Peterson. A friend gave me the first edition, published in 1957. Eighty-five birders share first-hand observations of birds. Included is a piece by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.
The thing you like most about writing:
After the idea takes hold and I grasp the reason behind why I should put myself through such a lot of hard work, I love rewriting, editing, hacking extra phrases, honing in on the most precise way to say what I mean and make the writing seem simple.
The thing you like least:
Getting started. I go out of my way to avoid getting started.
Any unusual work habits/routines/superstitions?
I blame village life and verandahland for my lack of writing rigour and routine. When I’m “in”, however, when I am oddly, deeply involved, the Taurus in me takes hold, and I am tenacious to the end.
What’s next for you on the writing agenda:
My plan is every literary writer’s plan— to write a bestselling mystery.

About Holley

Holley Rubinsky, Canadian fiction writer living in British Columbia, Canada, is the author of South of Elfrida (Brindle & Glass, 2013), At First I Hope forRescue (Knopf C­anada, 1997; Picador, 1998), Rapid Transits and Other Stories (Pol­estar, 1991) and Beyond This Point, (McClelland & Stewart, 2006).

Winner of the first $10,000 Journey Prize, a National Magazine Award Gold Medal for fiction, and nominated for B.C.’s Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, Rubinsky hosted The Writers’ Show, produced by CJLY, Nelson. Her stories have appeared in a number of anthologies, including The PenguinAnthology of Stories by Canadian Women.

She holds an M.Ed from U.C.L.A, earned her single-engine land private pilot’s license early on, works for Writing Retreats Kaslo, applies the Usui system of Reiki healing when needed and practices Buddhism as taught to the West by HH the Dalai Lama.

The late Yuri Rubinsky, software architect, was Holley’s husband. Robin Ballard, Rubinsky’s daughter, is an artist and writer living in Switzerland.

The Review: South of Elfrida, by Holley Rubinsky


Fellow readers and writers: I have decided to commit half of this blog to voices other than my own (all right, all right, stop cheering). It will be my small effort to shamelessly promote and support other writers. To that end I offer you a monthly book review, which will be followed the week after by an interview with the author.

September brings us South of Elfrida, by Holley Rubinsky.

 South of Elfrida

South of Elfrida is Holley Rubinsky’s newest collection of short stories, eighteen in all. They are distinct, but they also definitely belong together, connecting sometimes through landscape, sometimes through voice or the theme of loss.
I was lucky to hear Holley read from her collection when she came through Penticton last spring. As both a writer and a reader, I find it the ultimate treat to hear another writer read her work out loud and talk about the process by which it was created. Many of the stories in this collection are about characters who are on the road in Arizona in RVs. Turns out Holley took a similar extended road trip and had several adventures along the way, some of which worked their way into these stories. And you can tell: they have that ring of authenticity to them.
One of the things I loved in these stories was the way she makes use of animals to echo how people treat each other (often as predator and prey). In the opening story, a man named Leonard rescuing his niece from an abusive situation is set alongside the rescue of turtle eggs: both are an attempt to keep the vulnerable safe from predators.
The title story is about a group of women birders headed by a rather severe expert known as the hawk man. The narrator, a woman named Jean who is down on her luck, sees a similarity between the hawk man and her military father. “She recognizes the intensity in him, the coldness. She craves his focused energy; she wants in.” In her attempt to impress the hawk man, she suddenly understands that she has been bagged, like one of his birds.
Holley has a wonderful eye for the telling detail. In “Among the Emus,” Crystal “…remembers going to her first AA meeting, dirty bra strap showing.” In “The Compact,” a gem of a story, Sally keeps the ashes from a secret abortion in a powder compact. She rebels against her redneck husband by spitting in the meatloaf she makes him for dinner. In “Coyote Moon,” a rooster is mauled by a bear; a husband suffers from undiagnosed cancer. In the world’s strange arithmetic it is the rooster that survives.  In “At Close Range,” a mother’s secret about her daughter’s paternity finds its way out in a small and surprising way.
Holley tackles some challenging points of view. “Borderline” is told by Paula, a woman with a borderline personality disorder who craves attention but has trouble keeping herself under control if she receives it. “He saw me; he talked to me,” she says near the end, and then must “stand for five minutes until the excitement passes.” Many of the narrators in these stories are lonely and looking for connection wherever they can find it. The stories are rendered with gentleness, honesty and humour.
I will leave you with the final paragraph of “Coyote Moon,” which to me summarizes what so many of these stories are saying. Besides which, I think Holley has the enviable talent of knowing how to end a story well:
“What is the wisdom in loss? What is she supposed to learn? For now, she wants something chased down; she, too, carries grudges. The stars rise like diamonds from behind the mountains into the vivid sky, deep indigo and mauve. This is the first truly dark place Lee has ever lived; nightly she experiences miracles.”

South of Elfrida is published by Brindle and Glass.

Scofield’s Wall


For anyone who doesn’t know, Michael Scofield is the mastermind behind the escape in the t.v. series, Prison Break. The show had its moments (some brilliant dialogue and edge-of-the-seat action) but what captivated me most was Scofield’s wall.

Come on, novelists. Don’t you totally covet that wall? That is the wall of a planner. I want that wall for the novel I’m working on. Sticky notes and photographs and articles and blueprints – Scofield had the escape planned to the second. And like most plans, it didn’t always work out the way he’d expected, and he’d have to go back and try something else (sort of like throwing away fifty pages of work you love because you’ve suddenly realized they serve no purpose other than being loved by you). 
I’ve been coveting this wall for so long that finally, this week, I made my beginning. I’ve put up some cork (since Scofield never had to worry about patching the holes in his wall), added photographs of the way I imagine my characters to look, index cards that plot the novel out chapter by chapter, a list of the books I need to read. My wall has not yet reached Scofield proportions (it’s actually pretty sad by comparison) but it’s coming along.
I’ve noticed a couple of things about outlining so far. One, you have to be willing to be flexible. Sometimes what you thought would work, just…doesn’t. Sometimes in writing the actual story you find a way that’s better than how you’d planned it. Sometimes you get those middle of the night anxiety pangs when you realize one major part of the plot is implausible, or worse – stupid. Down come the index cards. You work it out. New ones go up a few days later.
I’ve learned how hard it is to boil your Big Idea down to a couple of paragraphs – or even worse, one line. I’ve learned that if you can’t do these things, your novel has a problem. It might lack focus or be unnecessarily complex. You might not truly know what it’s about yet or what your protagonist truly wants. Kurt Vonnegut famously advised, “Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.” An outline forces you to find your character’s glass of water (or whatever it is that you’ve created them to want).
I love this process. Never again would I contemplate writing a novel without making this sort of plan.  Next up: Scofield’s tattoo (just kidding).

The Inner Critic

Probably most people are familiar with this little voice in their head. If you write, you will know your Inner Critic intimately. Mine is small and thin and has a yellowing little goatee and wears a permanent sneer. He hates everything, tells me that whatever I’ve just written it won’t be good enough and no one will want to read it anyway, and I should just take up knitting or clog dancing instead.

If you ever want to write, it is imperative that you silence this voice, shut him out(or her – maybe your Inner Critic sounds like your piano teacher). I do it over and over – almost every time I sit down to write.

The biggest help to this process for me has been Natalie Goldberg and her book Writing down the bones. Her advice? Don’t think too much. Keep the hand moving. Go deep. Find the detail. Follow whatever thread your mind takes you on. Above all, don’t be afraid.

Goldberg’s method becomes something of a meditation (which is fitting, given her commitment to Zen). Writing for her is a spiritual practice.

Try it now. Pick up a pen, look out your window, and describe what you see – for 5 minutes, without stopping. Just write.