Ten novels in twenty years. Cordelia Strube is no slouch, and bear in mind that she is also a long-time dedicated creative writing teacher at Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education. I’ve always been deeply impressed by the mix of heart and smart contained in her novels, and when you add a steely sharp writing style and dialogue that feels overheard rather than written – well, don’t take my word for it. In the section below you have a chance to read a chapter from a novel not yet published. On The Shores of Darkness, There is Light will be published in the spring of 2016 by ECW Press.
Along the way in her career, Cordelia has been nominated for most of the Canadian national literary awards such as: The Governor General’s award for literature; The Giller Prize (long listed); the Re-Lit Award; Books in Canada/W.H. Smith Award for best first novel – and she has won the CBC Literary Competition.
“THERE’S A BABY STUCK in a car.” Harriet waves anxiously at the crowd of parents watching T-Ball. They don’t notice. She runs back to the SUV, across grass turned to straw. It hasn’t rained in six weeks. Smog chokes the city.
The baby, mottled pink, purplish around the eyes and mouth, is strapped to the car seat. Wailing, she jerks her chubby arms and legs, her cries muted by the latest technology in road noise reduction. She looks like the baby Harriet pictured when her mother told her she was pregnant; a cute baby with a normal head and curly blonde locks. Harriet presses her nose against the window, causing the cute baby to stare at her as though she is the one who has trapped her. “Don’t blame me,” Harriet mutters. “When in doubt, blame Harriet.”
Just this morning her mother blamed her for losing the plastic pitcher for bagged milk. “Why can’t you put things back in their place?” When it turned out Harriet’s little brother used the pitcher to shower his plastic animals, her mother didn’t apologize to Harriet. Or scold Irwin. There’s no doubt in Harriet’s mind she’d be better off without her little brother. She should have snuffed him when she had the chance, after they took him out of the incubator and handed him to her, all red and wrinkled, with his stretched head, and veins pulsing weakly under his see-through skin.
“Say hi to your brother,” her mother said. She no longer looked like her mother because she’d stopped eating and sleeping when Irwin was cut out of her. The furry-lipped nurse, who’d helped Harriet put on the sterile gloves, said, “Your brother is a miracle baby.” Harriet didn’t see why. The other preemies in incubators looked like fat turkeys compared to Irwin.
The cute baby trapped in the car seat has stopped wiggling and isn’t pink and purple anymore, just pale. Harriet tries the doors again before scrambling back to the crowd of parents. She pushes her way to the front of the pack where her mother and her boyfriend coach Irwin as he swings wildly at the ball balanced on the T.
“Keep your eye on the ball, champ,” her mother’s boyfriend says, bending over, revealing his butt crack above his track pants. Gennedy claims he was a jock in high school and consequently unable to kick the track pants habit. He has a shred of Kleenex stuck to his chin from a shaving cut. Harriet considered telling him about it this morning but decided to see how long it would take to drop off.
Harriet’s mother, in short shorts because, according to Gennedy, she’s still got the gams, fans her face with her hand and says, “Try again, peanut, you can do it.” The other parents pretend they don’t mind Irwin getting extra turns because he’s developmentally challenged. They order their unchallenged kids to be nice to him, and Irwin thinks people are nice because everybody acts nice around him, they just don’t invite him for play-dates, so he is in Harriet’s face 24/7. Harry, check on your brother. Harry, help your bother with his buttons. Harry, be a sweetheart and wipe your brother’s nose.
She squeezed toothpaste into his slippers this morning but he went barefoot.
“Good swing, champ,” Gennedy calls.
What Harriet knows about adults is that they say one thing while thinking something completely different. For this reason she doesn’t believe a word any of them say. She won’t have to deal with them anymore when she gets to Algonquin Park. She has two-hundred and forty-eight dollars in her bank account, but because she’s only eleven, her daily withdrawal limit is twenty dollars. Emptying her account requires thirteen withdrawals, and she’s worried the ladies at the bank might rat on her because Harriet’s mother worked there before Irwin was born. She’d often pick Harriet up from daycare and take her to the bank to finish up paperwork. As the doors were closed to the public at six, Harriet was allowed to sit at a big desk and draw with an assortment of pens. After Irwin was born, Lynne quit working at the bank and lived at the hospital. She came home on weekends to do laundry. Trent, Harriet’s father, sat in the dark absently plucking his eyebrows, until he started going to farmers’ markets and met Uma.
Harriet tugs on her mother’s arm.
“Bunny, please don’t do that, you’re not a two year-old.”
“There’s a baby stuck in a car.”
When Harriet’s parents divorced, her mother went back to work at the bank until her breakdown. Harriet loved the bank and plans to work in one when she grows up. She craves the quiet, and the soft sound of bills being counted, the clicking and sliding of metal drawers, the tapping of keyboards, the dependability of safety deposit boxes, the finality of stamp pads. Everybody’s polite at the bank and nobody shouts or swears. She tugs on her mother’s arm again. “Somebody’s forgotten their baby.”
“I’m sure that’s not true. The baby’s probably just napping.”
Irwin bats the ball and it bounces feebly to the side. “Way to go, champ!” Gennedy shouts. “That was awesome!” Other parents jerk into phoney smiles while Irwin chortles, bobbling his big head.
Harriet sewed some rags together to make a voodoo doll of Gennedy that she sticks pins into daily. Last Christmas she asked her mother why he moved into The Shangrila with them. “You wouldn’t understand,” her mother said but Harriet insisted she would. She pestered her mother until Lynne slumped on a kitchen chair, fiddled with a busted angel decoration and said, “Because when he says he won’t leave me, he means it.” Harriet understood then that she was doomed to co-habit with Gennedy, the shouter and swearer, who says she’s negative, and can’t even cook a decent tuna casserole. When her mother’s at the hospital, Harriet lives on Lucky Charms.
“The baby isn’t sleeping,” Harriet repeats, more loudly this time even though her mother hates it when she’s loud.
“Harry, it’s none of your business. I’m sure the parents are here somewhere and keeping an eye on the car.”
“What’s the problem here?” Gennedy asks, wiping sweat off his nose. The Kleenex is still stuck to his chin.
“No problem,” Lynne says, swigging on a water bottle.
“There is a problem,” Harriet says. “There’s a baby stuck in a car.”
Irwin stumbles towards them. Gennedy grabs him and swings him up in the air. “How ‘bout some burgers, big guy?”
“Wowee, wowee, burgers with cheeeezze!” Irwin squeals, causing other parents to stare and jerk into phoney smiles again.
“There’s a baby stuck in a car!” Harriet shouts.
“Harriet.” Her mother grips her arm but Harriet jerks it away and shouts even louder, “There’s a baby stuck in a car! Right over there.” She pushes through the crowd and points at the SUV.
“Oh my god,” a rumpled man in a Blue Jays cap cries before charging to the SUV. He gropes frantically in his pockets for his remote, repeating, “Jesus fucking Christ” and “Fucking hell.” His T-ball player son chases after him, hooting and flapping his arms. Finally the man unlocks the car. “Tessy,” he croons in a baby voice as he ducks in and frees the listless infant.
“Whassup?” Darcy asks, lying on her tummy on the couch painting her fingernails black.
“Did you shoplift that polish?” Harriet asks.
“Damn fucking straight. No way I’m paying eight bucks for this shit.” She flashes her fingers at Harriet, “Like it? Black is the dope, dude,” and sucks the straw on a can of diet Sprite. “I’m going on a date later. I am single and ready to mingle.” Darcy moved into The Shangrila a month ago. She’s twelve and knows how to give blowjobs, suck on bongs and inhale fatties. Harriet has no interest in blowjobs, bongs or fatties, but she feels flattered that an older girl wants to be her friend—although, in her experience, friendships don’t last. Eventually the new friend finds out Harriet has no other friends, can’t text because she doesn’t have a cell, or an iPod, or an allowance, plus a freak for a brother. Darcy’s mother rips ladies’ hair off with wax. She doesn’t shout or swear and lets Darcy eat junk food, go on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr and watch whatever she wants on YouTube. Gennedy only allows Harriet an hour of computer time per day, and he’s constantly looking over her shoulder to make sure she isn’t frittering away her time absorbing useless pop culture. He shouted at her when he caught her watching the Brazilian cab driver singing Thriller just like Michael Jackson. Harriet didn’t know anything about Michael Jackson, except that he died a long time ago and looked creepy. But Darcy showed her the Thriller video and Harriet was impressed by his moonwalk. Gennedy caught her practicing it while watching the cab driver from Brazil singing Thriller. “How is this improving your mind?” he shouted. According to Harriet’s mother, Gennedy is the only criminal lawyer in history that’s broke. If he works at all it’s legal aid, defending drug addicts, thieves and vandals. Lynne could have done better than Gennedy, Harriet thinks, because she’s hot. Men have always ogled her mother. Construction workers and loiterers all whistle and snicker Nice ass, Come to papa, or Whatever you need, I’ll give it to you, baby. When Harriet was little she’d turn on these pervballs and shout, “Stop looking at my mother! Leave my mother alone!” She doesn’t defend her mother from pervballs anymore because she can see her mother likes the attention, especially now that she’s older and has had two kids.
Darcy flaps her hands to dry the polish. “The Shangrila is a downer, dude. How can you stand living here? It’s, like, seven floors of seniors, a freakin’ old people farm. My mom says the carpets haven’t been replaced since man wiped his dirty feet on the moon. She says they’re moon carpets and she’s going to split her head open tripping over a crater.” She sniffs the polish in the bottle before screwing the lid back on. “Want to go to Shoppers World?”
Harriet sits in the armchair Darcy’s mother keeps covered in plastic to protect it from cat hairs. “You just said you had a date.”
“Don’t be such a douche bag.”
“Do you even know what a douche bag is?”
“It’s a bag, duh, to put douches in.”
“Do you know what a douche is?”
Darcy pulls on the cat’s tail, causing it to dart across the moon carpet. She hates the cat because she has to feed it and clean its litter box.
“You don’t even know what a douche is,” Harriet says, “so why are you always calling people douche bags?”
“LOL, so what is it then, Miss Super Brain?”
“It’s a nozzle women shove up their snatches to clean them out. The douche bag has water in it, and other stuff.When you squeeze the bag, the stuff quirts up.”
“It’s true. My dad’s girlfriend squirts herbs up her hoo-ha to make her mucous friendlier to my dad’s sperm.”
“FML, would you shut up, that is so gross. That is like … nobody does that. That’s sick.”
“I just think you should know what a douche bag is before you call people douche bags.”
“Okay, fine, thank you, Einstein. OMG I was just joking around.”
Darcy moved into The Shangrila because her parents got divorced. Her mother, Nina, is being fucked over by her ex, Buck. “Buck’s fucking me over,” she often says, or, “Fucking Buck is fucking me over.” Harriet has adopted this phrase and consoles herself, when alone, by muttering that … fill in the blank … fucked her over. Lynne doesn’t say Trent is fucking her over although, since he cut back on child support to pay for Uma’s expensive infertility treatments, Lynne has been referring to him as the asshole.
“I wish my dad was here,” Darcy grumbles. “He’d take us to the DQ.” Harriet likes Buck because he calls her The Lone Ranger and drove them to Canada’s Wonderland in his MAC truck, bought them candy floss and ride tickets. But, according to Nina, Buck’s a pothead and thinks with his dick. This is why she divorced him. Lynne doesn’t say Trent’s a pothead and thinks with his dick. Harriet’s not sure why her parents divorced other than her dad freaking over Irwin, and meeting Uma and deciding she had a brilliant mind. He wouldn’t have met Uma if Irwin hadn’t had a seizure at the farmers’ market.
“You reek,” Darcy says. “Have you been dumpster diving again?”
“I found some wood, not warped or anything.” Harriet paints on primed plywood or stiff cardboard because she can’t afford canvas. It consoles her that Tom Thomson sketched on wood. Uma, when she first started dating Trent, took Harriet to a Group of Seven show. The painters’ worn wooden paint boxes and palettes fascinated Harriet. Tom Thomson’s box was small, just a rectangular box. Frederick Varley’s was fancier, with compartments. Even though Tom Thomson died too young to be officially part of the Group of Seven, Harriet thinks of him as her favourite Group of Seven painter. She was mesmerized by his small, simple box, imagining him hiking through Algonquin with the box stuffed in his rucksack, entranced by a piece of sky or water or a tree and sitting down to paint them. She imagined him taking out the box, balancing it on his lap, rubbing his hands together to warm them, and resting his wooden sketch board against the box’s lid. She yearned to watch him pick and mix his colours, and make his first stroke, touching his brush to the board. She felt if she could sit quietly behind him, he wouldn’t mind. He was so handsome, even though he smoked, and she loved it that he never went to art school. “Harriet,” Uma huffed, “we’re here to look at the paintings, not the paint boxes.” Harriet memorized the colours on Tom’s palette, determining to recreate them at home. It seemed as though the lights dimmed when she moved away from his paint box, and the studio paintings held none of the vibrancy of the sketches he made in the wilderness. She couldn’t feel him in the studio paintings the way she felt him in the paint box, palette and the sketches. She wanted to understand why he died at Canoe Lake, why he let that happen when he could paint like that. She couldn’t imagine letting herself drown if she could paint like that. In her room, she tried mixing the colours but they were lifeless on the board and it occurred to her that maybe Tom Thomson let himself drown because he could no longer paint like that.
“One of these days,” Darcy warns, “you’ll get the flesh-eating disease from a dumpster and die.”
Harriet searches the capybara on YouTube again.
“OMG, quit looking at that giant hamster,” Darcy says.
“It’s the world’s largest rodent.”
“Who gives a fuck?”
“They don’t bark. My mother won’t let me have a dog because it barks and might scare my brother.”
“You hate dogs anyway.”
“Just Mrs. Schidt’s.” Mrs. Schidt is eighty-one, lives down the hall in 709 and pays Harriet fourteen dollars a week to walk her skinny white dog with yellow eyes. She’s been paying Harriet fourteen dollars a week for three years and always has to scrabble around in bowls and drawers for toonies and loonies to make the fourteen.
“I bet giant hamsters shit bus loads,” Darcy says. “You’d spend all day stooping and scooping giant hamster turds.”
“You can house train them, and you don’t have to walk them.” Harriet avoids dog people because all they talk about is dogs, and they act snarky when you don’t let their dogs jump on you, lick your hand and sniff your crotch.
The capybara’s lady owner holds a green Popsicle and the capybara nibbles it. The lady lifts the Popsicle just out of the capybara’s reach. The world’s largest rodent taps the lady’s shoulder gently with its paw to signal it wants some more. Repeatedly the capybara and the lady exchange pats for nibbles on the green Popsicle. This looks like so much fun to Harriet.
“What kind of name is Harriet anyway?” Darcy asks. “I mean, it’s like, an old lady name.”
“It’s my father’s mother’s name. And my grandfather’s name is Irwin. My parents named us after them thinking it would make them forgive them for eloping. They’re rich and my parents keep hoping they’ll give them money, or drop dead and leave them money. But they’ll never die.”
“Not mean and cheap people, they live till a hundred. Look at Mrs. Butts.” Mrs. Butts lives next door in 702 and sends Harriet on errands for a quarter. She’s fat, eighty-two, humpbacked and addicted to pain-killers and sleeping pills. When she wants Harriet to do something she smiles and puts on a nice little old lady voice, but if Harriet brings back Minute Maid orange juice with, instead of without, pulp, or beef, instead of chicken flavoured Temptations for her cats, Mrs. Butts turns into a mean junky.
The word among the seniors at The Shangrila is that Harriet will go down to Hung Best Convenience for a quarter. Mr. Shotlander in 406 has her picking up the paper on Fridays for the TV listings, and Harriet suspects she’s under-priced herself, but at least the errands get her away from Gennedy.
What she can’t understand about her mother shacking up with Gennedy is why Lynne has to be with somebody in the first place. Harriet prefers to be by herself than with anybody. Around people she feels bound in one of Gran’s pressure stockings. She also doesn’t understand why Gran is nice to her but mean to her mother, even though Lynne cleared the junk out of her house when Gran was evicted for health violations after Grandpa died. Lynne furnished Gran’s new place with nice things from IKEA, but still Gran complains about her, Where’d that know-it-all mother of yours put my muffin tins? Where’d that high-and-mighty mother of yours put my electric frying pan?
It seems to Harriet people are better off by themselves and not caged together in apartments and houses. When she escapes to the ranger cabin she won’t have to talk to anybody. Lost Coin Lake is isolated from road and canoe routes, and the marshy shoreline is unsuitable for swimming. Nobody goes there. This makes it perfect.
© All Rights Reserved Cordelia Strube 2014
Ann Ireland (AI): The new novel features a brainy, observant, original sort of girl as narrator. This isn’t the first time you’ve used such a main character to tell the story, I’m thinking of your novel, LEMON. Obviously there is something about entering this kind of character that feels natural to you, that attracts you. Care to comment?
Cordelia Strube (CS): There are 2 narrators in On the Shores of Darkness There is Light (you wouldn’t know this from the first chapter)–the story is told in two movements. The Before segment is told from Harriet’s 11-year-old POV. The second segment, After, is told from the POV of her younger brother, Irwin, 7 years later, when he is 14. Writing a 338 page novel through the eyes of children was risky. My biggest fear was sounding twee, or being forced to use a limited vocabulary, but both Harriet and Irwin are so uniquely sighted, I stopped worrying. Harriet’s voice came at me forcefully, but Irwin’s required more patience. She is a comet, he is the Milky Way. Spending time inside the head of a developmentally-challenged, hormonal boy isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time. It took me many walks and thinks to figure out how to approach his side of the narrative. After is a completely different rhythm than Before.
Lemon, the narrator in Lemon, is 16 and already jaded and pissed off. I used her as a reference point because she is an avid reader and I could counterpoint her 21st century sensibility with that of 19th century fiction where the psychological novel took off thanks to Ms. Austen, the Georges, the Brontes, Sam Richardson etc. My objective in Lemon was to say to the reader, “Look at what we’ve done, are you okay with this?”
There’s a massive divide between the mind set of a 16 year-old and an 11 year-old. Harriet is free of conditioned responses to things. She has no filter. This informs on the art she produces, and her interactions with the self-absorbed adults around her. Societal expectations, peer pressure and pop culture overload can beat the originality out of us. Harriet, at 11, has nothing to lose because she has lost so much already and is consequently fearless; unsettling for the reader who fears for her. Peril keeps us reading.
AI: Darcy and Harriet scene: lots of current slang. How did you manage that? Eavesdropping? And what about slang dating; do you worry about that, that by the time the novel is published no one will be saying OMG?
CS: I eavesdrop whenever possible; hard to do with all the ambient noise. I never worry about “dating” my fiction. I use the current world as the backdrop for my novels. We live in interesting times. Part of my job is to document them. Before takes place post recession, after Kate and Will’s wedding. I use the wedding (and what was current in People Magazine: hashtag, Jennifer Anniston, and Obama) to date it because After takes place 7 years later. The 2008 recession had a devastating impact on Harriet; her father was laid off, her parents divorced and lost their house, her brother was hospitalized, her mother took up with a deadbeat who tried to control Harriet. We are the result of what happens to us.
AI: Your sentences always have pop and energy. You have been teaching creative writing for many years now; do you think it is possible to teach how to write ‘live sentences’?
CS: Listening, I believe, is what creates good dialogue. We can’t write down word for word a conversation we hear because that would be boring, but we can use fragments and build from there; reveal the essence of a character through their phrasing and word choices.
AI: You are prolific and I know you rewrite a good deal. What is the nature of your work discipline or routine?
CS: I am prolific because I don’t stop. Without a novel to swim around in, I sink, but I don’t write for hours a day, don’t push myself to produce a particular number of pages. Some days I write nothing new, just revise. Rarely does a first run at a sentence work for me. I rewrite constantly, especially at the start of a novel when I’m trying to figure out the voice.
AI: It’s been noted that your characters live in a dangerous world where bad things happen, sometimes really bad things. We all know that the world is a perilous place and that no one lives without suffering. What do you make of the current ‘Happiness’ fad? So many books written about how to achieve happiness.
CS: The title of this novel is a line from a Keats poem:
Aye on the shores of darkness there is light,
And precipices show untrodden green,
There is budding morrow in midnight,
There is triple sight in blindness keen.
This poem is full of light and hope while acknowledging the dark. We can’t see the light unless we’ve been in the dark. Shadows, as Harriet points out, are produced by light. Imagining that your life should be free of suffering is debilitating. Suffering adds perspective and makes joy vibrant. It’s when we become immobilized by pain–physical, emotional or psychological–that we need help. That’s when I reach for a book written by a mad man, or woman, like Mr. Blake or Ms. Dickinson. It makes me feel less alone, stranded in our “think positive” culture. Happiness isn’t a constant state for me. It’s a piece of sky, a brief human interaction, a glance at a painting, a scrap of prose or poetry, a child’s expression, the feel of a loved one’s hand, a good cup of coffee.
AI: Do you see yourself as having an ongoing Project in your writing? Is there something you seek to do in all your books? Something you continue to explore?
CS: My ongoing project is not to go completely mad like Mr. Blake. A critic once described my novels as “exceedingly well-written pleas for awareness.” I don’t have answers, just many questions. Above all I aim to entertain my readers, keep them turning the page while laughing and crying. I hope also to provoke thought about how we’re managing things (or not) during our time on this miraculous planet. Fiction allows us to fly straight into truths, both ugly and beautiful. We don’t need to be careful when we’re making it all up.
All photos by Carson Linnéa Healey.
Ann Ireland‘s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, recently reprinted by Dundurn Press, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.