Thanks to everyone who attended the zoom launch of So Many Windings. I had fun and I hope you did too. But if you missed it, you can still watch it on youtube right here.
In order to write So Many Windings, I had to research the history of tourism in Scotland around the turn of the twentieth century. That’s when I first discovered the Pennells. Joseph Pennell and Elizabeth Robins Pennell were an enterprising American husband and wife team who were pioneer travel journalists. Elizabeth did the writing and Joseph was a skilled etcher and lithographer who illustrated their books. In 1886 they had done a tour of France and Italy on a tandem tricycle and spun this into a series of articles for Harper’s Bazaar magazine. These were subsequently published as Our Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy.
Harper’s asked them to follow up with a similar book on the Scottish Highlands. The Pennell’s replied, “Couldn’t we do another book on France?”. And Harper’s said, “Scotland. Take it or leave it.” Without enthusiasm, the Pennell’s planned a tour to the Hebrides for the summer of 1888. They decided on walking instead of travelling by bicycle or by stagecoach and train. This would prove to be a mistake.
Elizabeth summed it up this way in the resulting book, Our Journey to the Hebrides. “We have no hesitation in saying that our trip to Scotland was the most miserable.” And she further said, “…let us say here, once and for all, that we found the whole country BEAUTIFUL and full of the most WONDERFUL EFFECTS; but we must also add that it is the most abominable to travel through, and its people are the most down-trodden on God’s earth.”
Walking was a misery. The weather was “vile”—cold, rain, fog, wind, sleet. Inns and hotels were sparse on the ground and often not within a day’s walking distance. Elizabeth was a proto-foody and found Scottish cooking to be almost inedible. There was only one meal on the whole trip that she admitted to enjoying.
The one benefit of walking through the Highlands and Islands was that they tramped through more remote parts than tourists of the day would have travelled. They saw Highland life close up. Unwittingly, they had walked into the worst of northern Scotland’s land tenure crisis. One of the most significant incidents of this crisis occurred in 1887, the year before the Pennell’s tour. A group of crofters on the Isle of Lewis had entered their landowner’s deer park illegally and slaughtered over 100 of his deer both to feed their starving families and to protest the unfair rental conditions under which they were forced to live. The crofters rented small plots of land, called crofts, from the local estate owner. These plots had been subdivided so many times that often they were too small to sustain a family. The crofters usually had no written leases and the owner could throw them off their land at his/her sole discretion. In fact landowners had been doing this for most of the previous century in order to turn the land over to sheep, who were more profitable than small scale agriculture. Crofters would often be unable to pay their full rent and so they accumulated crippling amounts of debt. Attempts to supplement their income by fishing and seaweed harvesting were subject to the fluctuating conditions of fish stocks and the declining market for seaweed. By the 1880s, there was widespread privation in the Highlands and Islands.
The Pennells saw these conditions and wrote about them in forthright terms. Their sympathies were with the crofters and they were particularly incensed that fellow Americans were buying up Scottish estates and perpetuating these feudal arrangements. The Scottish tourist industry was then just waking up to how much of a bonanza mass tourism, particularly by North Americans, could be for Scotland. Realizing the Pennell’s book would discourage trade, both the Scottish gentry and the Scottish press erupted with howls of outrage directed at these foreigners who dared to air Scotland’s dirty laundry in its most promising marketplace.
All of this makes Our Journey to the Hebrides a far more interesting book than it would have been had the Pennell’s produced the kind of treacly guide to castles and scenery that Harper’s was clearly expecting. Much to Harper’s credit, they published the book anyway.
I wanted to establish my personal biking cred since bicycling figures prominently in my second mystery novel, So Many Windings, available imminently at a bookstore near you. (Click on the Charles Lauchlan Mystery tab for further details and sign up for the zoom launch of So Many Windings on May 27.)
I bought an electric-green Jeunet 10 speed with dropped handlebars and a Simplex derailleur with the income tax refund from the first year of my first real job. French bikes were de rigeuer then and my Jeunet was right up to date. This was some time ago. In fact, it was in that dark time before spandex biking shorts.
I’ve always liked bike riding, but not the breakneck leg-pumping of the fitness-obsessed. When I get on a bike, I like to ramble. I like to see the world from the relaxed vantage point of two wheels. Which is why long-distance touring by bike really appealed to me during the era of my shiny Jeunet 10 speed. I can only claim one such trip but it lives very happily in my memory. (For more than one reason; it was my and my husband’s honeymoon).
We biked from Fredericton to Charlottetown with, in retrospect, an amazingly small amount of gear. Greg bought two army surplus canvas bags that we sewed together and hung over the carrier of my bike. Those carried our sleeping bags and tent plus some other gear on top of the carrier. Greg had pannier bags on his bike that were bought at Fresh Air Experience, a Winnipeg store that was so much of its era that I get nostalgic just thinking about it. These bags carried our clothes, cameras, toiletries etc. Here’s what the loaded bikes looked like.
We were on the road for 10 days in early fall, alternately tenting and staying in bed and breakfasts and guest houses along the route. Each day was different. We slogged on during pouring rain in our wet blue jeans; picnicked in the beautiful St. John River valley; slept one night in the mayor of Gagetown’s car; saw an enchanted flock of goats; photographed ourselves among the towering rock formation on the coast of the Bay of Fundy; had an amazing dinner at the Marshlands Inn in Sackville; and got blown across PEI by a mighty wind and hardly had to peddle. You really take things in more intensely when you’re on a bike, which is why these images are still so clear in my mind.
Here I am toiling up one of the numerous hills in New Brunswick.
Fifteen or so years later, the Jeunet was trundled off to a neighbourhood rummage sale. Its paint was faded and a bit chipped and I never did like the dropped handlebars—too uncomfortable for someone as short as me with short arms to match. I went on to a mountain bike with standard handlebars. And now I ride a sedate bike with a wide, comfortable seat, the kind of bike that would have a wire basket mounted on the handlebars if I cared to install one. But I still think of my Jeunet and the adventure we went on together.
If we could order up ideas the way we order from Amazon, all writers would be deliriously happy. But ideas have their own agendas. They need to be coaxed to fly into your head.
Here’s one method that worked for me. After my first mystery novel, Put on the Armour of Light, was on its way to publication, I was searching for inspiration for the second book in the series. I already knew that my characters from the first book: Charles Lauchlan, his fiancé Maggie Skene, and their friend Sergeant Andrew Setter would be at the centre of the action. But the rest of the who, what and where of the story was a complete blank.
Without having any idea of what would happen, I tossed three “items” into an imaginary hat, shook them up, and dumped them out onto my desk. All three were things that interested me and that I would enjoy exploring further. The first two items were: Scotland and bicycling. The third “item” was actually a twosome: two amazing Scottish sisters that I’d read about who formed their own expedition in the late 19th century to cross the Sinai desert and explore the manuscripts in the ancient library of St. Catherine’s Monastery. So, Scotland, bicycling and two adventurous Scottish sisters. The jumbling together of these three began to suggest a story that my existing characters could take part in. After that I worked on the elaboration of that initial idea by adding characters and actions as they came into my head. A simple method, but the devil really is in the details. And also in the maxim, “bum in the chair” as one of my favourite professors used to say.
I failed take his advice more often than I care to admit, but what eventually came out of this process was my new book, So Many Windings.
Every writer is different and every book that every writer writes is different from the previous book. You can read advice from all sorts of successful writers but ultimately you have to find your own way of working. The toss-it-in-the hat trick worked for me as an idea generator for So Many Windings.
Don’t forget to register for the zoom launch of So Many Windings on May 27, 2021 at 7pm CDT. And remember that I’ll be signing books at Whodunit Bookstore, 163 Lilac St. in Winnipeg on May 30 from 3pm to 5pm.
Register for the zoom here
When I wrote the first book in the Charles Lauchlan mystery series, I spent about six months obsessed with finding the absolute right title. I was convinced that somewhere, out in the ether, there was exactly the right title if I could only find it.
I read reams of poetry, combed through the King James Bible, found every nursery rhyme I could lay my hands on. I looked at other titles for mystery novels and discovered that short and snappy was fashionable. Out of all this research, I developed a list and finally selected The One.
“Astray.” That was it. Short and snappy and meant to suggest the phrase from the book of Isaiah, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” I rested on my title searching laurels.
Then, at the very last minute when the book was about to go to press, Emma Donoghue came out with a book of short stories entitled—you guessed it—Astray. I don’t consider myself in the same league as Donoghue but there was going to be confusion for book buyers. So, in a lather, I found another title and my book became, Put on the Armour of Light, also from the Bible, in this case from Paul’s letter to the Romans. From short and snappy to long and hard to remember. But I was happy with it and breathed a sigh of relief that titular disaster had been averted.
While writing the second book—very soon to be at a bookstore near you—I was more casual about the title. Since the book is set in Scotland and the Scots have many words for rain in all its guises, “Fifty Words for Rain” was it. Well satisfied, I turned to other tasks.
Then, at the very last minute when the book was about to go to press, a New York Times bestseller hit the shelves entitled—you guessed it—Fifty Words for Rain. Apparently, they also have rain in Japan. I don’t consider my books to be in the same league as New York Times bestsellers. But, in a lather, I found another title and my book became So Many Windings which refers to the Lancelot Andrewes poem that starts the book and also to the character of the roads that my fictional cyclists travel.
It just goes to show you that if you come up with a title that seems just right, chances are good that somebody else thought so too.
Don’t forget to register for the zoom launch of So Many Windings on May 27, 2021 at 7pm CDT. And remember that I’ll be signing books at Whodunit Bookstore, 163 Lilac St. in Winnipeg on May 30 from 3pm to 5pm.
Register for the zoom here
I’m very excited to announce that my second book in the Charles Lauchlan Mystery series, So Many Windings, will be published at the end of May by At Bay Press.
So Many Windings picks up the action where Put on the Armour of Light left off. It’s August of 1900 and Charles Lauchlan and his fiancé, Maggie Skene are on their way back to Winnipeg from Germany, where Maggie has been studying for a year. Friends that Maggie met while in Germany invite them on a bicycling tour of the Scottish Highlands. Bicycling through the Highlands! What could possibly go wrong?
The launch will be virtual via zoom from Whodunit Mystery Bookstore in Winnipeg on May 27, 2021 at 7pm CST. Please register for the zoom, put it in your datebook and tune in.
Register for the zoom launch here
I will also be signing copies in front of Whodunit Mystery Bookstore, 163 Lilac St., Winnipeg, on Sunday, May 30 from 3pm to 5pm. We can have a socially distanced chat! (Rain location: inside the store).
You can pre-order So Many Windings at these fine locations: Whodunit Mystery Bookstore, McNally Robinson Booksellers, or Chapters Indigo. Or order direct from At Bay Press. If you haven’t yet read the first book in the series, Put on the Armour of Light, you can order it at the same time from the same sources.
My family roots are in Scotland and, for those of you who also have Scotland in your DNA, I’m hoping the book will be a special treat. It’s dedicated to my father, Donald Bruce Macdonald, who, though a patriotic Canadian, was also an unabashed Scotophile. We were the only family on our block to have a tartan doorbell. I like to think that my own attitude to Scotland is more nuanced and less sentimental than his, but I’m probably just kidding myself. In any case, I learned a lot about Scotland while writing the book, some of which I will talk about in subsequent posts. I also learned a lot about the golden age of bicycling at the turn of the Twentieth Century and I’ll be posting about that, too.
If I say the word “bookbinder”, do you picture a grizzled craftsperson, glasses perched low on the nose, attaching a beautifully-tooled calf binding to a classic text, say, an edition of T. S. Elliot’s collected poems, in a workroom heavy with the smell of exotic leathers?
If you do, Matt Joudrey will blow that picture right out of your head. Matt, when not attending to his day job as publisher of At Bay Press here in Winnipeg, is a bookbinder/designer who is expanding our ideas about the book as an aesthetic object. Take At Bay Press’s most recent limited edition publication, Chris Macalino’s long poem, Winnipeg Graffiti. Matt designed and fabricated all of the copies, which feature hand-made paper and a binding made of stained glass. At the very least, this is an amazing technical feat. I had to know more about Matt’s take on bookbinding and book design as 21st century arts and I’m delighted that he agreed to sit down to an e-interview with me.
But first, here’s a bit more about the many other hats worn by Matt Joudrey.
M.C. Joudrey is a Canadian writer, award winning artist and designer. He is the publisher of At Bay Press. His second novel Of Violence and Cliché was released September 2013, followed by his collection of short stories Charleswood Road: Storiesin August 2014, which was nominated for a 2015 Manitoba Book Award. His novel Fanonymous was released in 2019 and was nominated for two Manitoba Book Awards, including the Margaret Laurence Award for best work of fiction. M.C. Joudrey has been a member of the submission selection committee for the CBC Short Fiction Prize and a jury member for the Manitoba Book Awards. His titles reside in permanent legislative and national government collections. He is also a bookbinder and a number of his works are held in galleries internationally.
CM: Welcome to portage and slain, Matt. First of all, should I be using the term “bookmaking” instead of “bookbinding” for what you do?
MJ: For me, yes. Bookbinding, if I had to generalize it, focuses on the binding or rebinding of books. This is a true art form unto itself. Many top bookbinders have settled on that craft alone and often these bookbinders are called upon by collectors and libraries to restores old books when their original bindings have deteriorated. I would fall into that other category of “bookmaker” because I not only bind the book, I am also designing the book, doing the layout, and printing the book. In some cases, like Winnipeg Graffiti for instance, partnerships with other artists happen.
CM: How did you come to be interested in book binding and book design?
MJ: I just wanted to create things. I love books. It was a natural evolution.
CM: Do you have some favourite examples of bookmaking from other artists?
MJ: There are a number of book artists creating work that I really admire. My last trip to Minneapolis brought me to the Minnesota Centre for the Book Arts. It’s such a wonderful place, with a very respectable collection of handmade books in their store, by some of the best bookmakers in the United States.
I would be remiss not to mention the gorgeous bookmaking of artist Charles Van Sandwyk. He has set a standard for paperback books sewn by hand and his illustrations that decorate his books are delightfully charming.
Here in Winnipeg we have some great bookmakers. I love the bindings that Deb Frances Plett is making. She recently finished a collection where she partnered with 20 ceramic artists entitled the Stone Diary Project. It’s the third installment that she has done in the series. Erwin Huebner makes some exceptionally well crafted books that push the boundaries of what a book can be. Erwin is a Professor Emeritus at U. of Manitoba and his passion for bookmaking has brought about some intriguing creations. Karen Clavelle is another book artist in Winnipeg. I loved her handmade Mother Goose letters so much that I decided to publish her hardcover book entitled The Mother Goose Letters, the original handmade letters were a direct inspiration for the larger work we published to the trade.
CM: In addition to your commercial titles, At Bay Press regularly brings out limited editions of hand-bound books where the accent is as much on exploring the aesthetics of the book as it is on the text. Tell me about that.
MJ: Oh, that has everything to do with my need to make something by hand and to constantly test myself on the limits of what can be done. I love problem solving. I love mystery and discovery. Making books by hand, the sourcing and selection of materials, the design, illustration, and finally execution is a painstaking process. But, seeing it all come together in the end, the beauty and satisfaction of the finished object, after labouring for long periods of time is very satisfying. Plus, something permanent now exists that has been brought into the world, often by a number of contributors, it may seem like a romantic notion, but it does feel magical.
CM: Tell me about the technical and design challenges you faced in your design and binding for Chris Macalino’s long poem, Winnipeg Graffiti.
MJ: First, I want to say that working with Matthew McMillan at Prairie Studio Glass was an excellent experience and his stunning glass plate covers are the showpiece of the work.
The biggest issue, after the glass was made, was the realization of just how heavy each plate of glass actually was. This meant the final design needed to address that problem. One of the most important aspects of bookbinding is longevity. The idea that the final piece could live forever, well beyond its creator. I had serious concerns about the weight of the glass tugging and pulling at the paper binding from the simple force of opening and closing the book. I solved the problem with folds and a thin sheet of foam core carefully tucked away and hidden within those folds. This allowed for the book to rest safely on a cushion when not in use. This also afforded the book the opportunity to stand up on its own, with stability.
A bookbinder’s job is to produce something exceptional, but the design and craftsmanship must be mindful of the fact that, after all is done, it is still a book and meant to be handled by a reader and book lover. So, to that end, quality of craftsmanship is equally as important as visual eye appeal. I expect that good design, the visual appeal, and craftsmanship will likely show as a married effect to the beholder.
CM: How does what you do relate to the long tradition of the book design and bookbinding in Europe and North America?
MJ: While it does seem that there can be a zeitgeist of sorts that has the appearance of being regional, the art of bookmaking does tend to be a very solitary endeavour, for the most part, at least. This seems to support my theory that the work being produced overseas and in North America tend to be singular in scope, design, and execution.
I will say that certain technical aspects of the craft have reached a level of near perfection by some individual bookmakers. This could be attributed to region, but that’s likely not the case and has more to do with the individual’s long-suffering practice.
CM: You bring a very urban, modern and hard edge sensibility to your bookbinding and design. Are there artists and illustrators who you consider to be major influences?
MJ: My influences come from all aspects of my long passion for books and collecting art. I am a true collector at heart, and I love acquiring pieces that catch my eye. My collecting is by no means limited to just books. I love all forms of creation, both made and naturally occurring.
I’ll be on hand at Whodunit Bookstore on Saturday, April 28, from 10:30 am to 11:30 am to help the Bumsteds—and you—celebrate Canadian Independent Bookstore Day (formerly known as Authors for Indies). Canadian Independent Bookstore Day gives you an opportunity to acknowledge all the good that the indies do in our community by coming out and buying a book or two. This year you’ll find several local authors like myself taking part throughout the day. So if you miss me, you’ll encounter Michael J. Clark or Jonathon McPhail or Doug Whiteway—all with books of their own to tempt you and tips on other great reads.
Whodunit is Winnipeg’s only bookstore specializing in crime, thriller and mystery books, and is therefore very worth celebrating. Hope to see you on Saturday. (Come on, you know you want the latest Ian Rankin or the new one by that unpronounceable Norwegian guy.)
Winnipeg writer Sherri Smith’s debut crime novel, Follow Me Down, is as gripping a book as I’ve read in a long time. It’s a great gift to be able to dole out suspense at exactly the right pace and Smith’s got it. She also writes so vividly about Wayoata, North Dakota, a fictional town located in the most obscure corner of the American mid-west, that the reader feels the same icky ambivalence toward it as the book’s protagonist. These qualities earned Smith a contract with Forge Press, Macmillan’s U.S. mystery and thriller imprint.
In Follow Me Down, Mia Haas, who has successfully escaped Wayoata, is forced to return there to deal with the fact that her twin brother Lucas, a high school teacher, has disappeared. Worse news greets her when she finds out that Lucas is wanted for the murder of one of his students.
When not writing, Sherri Smith spends time with her family and two rescue dogs, and restores vintage furniture that would otherwise be destined for the dump. She finds that Winnipeg’s long, cold winters nurture her dark side.
Follow me Down is available at Whodunit, McNally Robinson Booksellers and Chapters Indigo.
Here is my e-conversation with Sherri.
CM: I’m filled with writer’s envy when I read sentences like, “She was exceptionally tall, almost six feet, with broad rounded shoulders and a very bad Blondissima dye job that was almost blue, making her dark inky eyebrows pop like a punch line.” Does that kind of writing come fairly easily to you or do you sweat for every syllable?
SS: Why thank-you!! Those kinds of sentences come easily enough to me, but there’s a dark side because I also have trouble culling all of those sentences. I have a tendency to write through issues, so I basically write two or three books to every one book (I am not a fast writer) and so that’s a lot to wade through. For me, writing is definitely rewriting and rewriting and rewriting!
CM: What attracted you about using first person narration, and did you find that it had some downsides too?
SS: First person comes most naturally to me. I love the feel of really slipping into someone else’s head for a while but yes, first person can also be really frustrating too because you’re so hindered on what you can reveal. You also lose out on using shifting perspectives to balance out your character’s tics (and Mia has plenty of those,) it’s also especially difficult when your first person narrator is not a detective, and she needs to use her own wits to unravel the mystery.
CM: Mia is a wry and dead-on observer of the world around her but she doesn’t always have an equal degree of insight into her own behaviour. Sometimes the reader wants to shake her. Was writing her a difficult balancing act?
SS: Good question! I just wanted Mia to be realistic. She’s conflicted and she’s in an incredibly stressful situation and struggling with her own addiction and so yes, I think she absolutely lacks insight into her actions (as most addicted people do) but I also feel it’s part of her charm. She’s doing the best that she can, in the given circumstances. I love how flawed she is, how her gummy brain works, how she can twist things to suit whatever she’s chasing down. I admire her loyalty and how she keeps her snarky humor going because I think it’s true of how a lot of people cope with their dark childhoods.
CM: The differences in language and culture are pretty subtle between the American mid-west and the Canadian prairies. But your Wayoata seems bang on to me. How did you get the American details so right?
SS: Google. And I like to go to Grand Forks and go shopping, so that too. All of my research trips were really just shopping trips at Target and Gordman’s.
CM: Who are the writers that you most admire and why?
SS: There are so many, too many and I am always discovering new writers to admire but my go-to list of writers who never disappoint are:
- Laura Lippman
- Gillian Flynn
- Chevy Stevens
- Peter Swanson
- Tana French
CM: What are you working on now?
SS: I am currently writing another suspense novel. I don’t want to say too much about it at this point other than it takes place at a wellness retreat, involves psychotropic tea and murder. Its scheduled release is Winter 2019.
CM: I’m fascinated by the process of choosing a title. Is there a story behind the choice of “Follow Me Down”?
SS: The original title was Dickson Park, but my publisher thought it was too quaint and Brit sounding, so I changed it to “Follow Me Down”. I think it aptly represents where Mia takes the reader; down the rabbit hole, into her pill-addled brain, and her downward spiral.
I get to play host and ask Gail Bowen all the questions I’ve been storing up for years when Gail launches the latest book in the Joanne Kilbourn series, The Winners’Circle. The launch is at 7pm at McNally Robinson on Thursday, Sept. 14, co-presented by the bookstore and the Winnipeg International Writers Festival as part of their collaborative fall literary series. Come out and join the conversation.
Find out more by clicking here