Today, I’m delighted to welcome Lily Iona MacKenzie to Virtual Book Club, an interview series in which I put questions to authors about the books they’d like to persuade your club to read. If you want to pose a question of your own, you’ll have the opportunity to do so at the end.
A Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in her early years, Lily supported herself as a stock girl in the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long distance operator for the former Alberta Government Telephones, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored her into the States). She also was a cocktail waitress at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, briefly broke into the male-dominated world of the docks as a longshoreman (she was the first woman to work on the SF docks and almost got her legs broken), founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County, and eventually earned two Master’s degrees (one in Creative writing and one in the Humanities). She has published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 150 American and Canadian venues. Her novel Fling! was published in July 2015 by Pen-L Publishing. Bone Songs, another novel, will be published in November 2016. A third novel, Freefall: A Divine Comedy will be released in 2017. Her poetry collection All This was published in 2011.
She also taught writing at the University of San Francisco and was vice-president of USF’s part-time faculty union. When she isn’t writing, she paints and travels widely with her husband.
Q: Lily, perhaps you can start by telling us how you came to be a writer.
I don’t think I had any choice. Writing is as necessary to me as eating, and if I don’t write each day, I become irritable and unpleasant to live with. Ask my husband!
When I was thirteen, I started keeping a diary that I wrote in a coded language I invented so anyone who read it wouldn’t be able to enter my world. I have no idea what happened to that first attempt to keep a journal, but I’m sure it was my writing self trying to emerge. That part of me was buried, along with the diary, until my mid-twenties when I experienced a deep depression. At that time, I started keeping a journal again. I also went into therapy, the first step in recovering my writing self.
The journal writing was my attempt to understand what was happening. I wrote daily not only about what I was thinking and feeling, but I also recorded my nightly dreams. I’ve continued this practice ever since, learning much about myself in the process. I feel that keeping in close contact with my dreams has fed my writing and enriched my imagination. At this time, I also started exploring the craft of writing, entering an undergraduate creative writing program.
Q: Today our focus is going to be your novel Fling!. What is it about the book that you feel makes it particularly suitable for book clubs?
Since women compose most book clubs, Fling! has a particular appeal to them, although I’ve talked to men that have read the book and loved it. Still, the main characters are female, four generations in fact. And in addition to the narrative being a bit of a comic romp featuring Feather and Bubbles, it also takes a serious look at the damaging results of multiple abandonments between generations and how the characters in this book reach some kind of resolution. So there is a strong psychological dimension.
As one reader who posted her review on Amazon said, “This book gave me a reason, or rather an opportunity, to celebrate my relationship with my mum. It will be a keepsake for the rest of my life. In fact, when my daughters grow up, this will be a book I will gift them. It is a must must must read for all mothers and daughters as well all men who love their mothers and daughters.”
But art plays a major role in Fling! Feather is a visual artist who focuses on sculpture, as is her great granddad Malcolm, another important character in the book. And Bubbles is an artist in her own way in that she’s open to the unknown and will give it shape in her life. This thread weaves its way through the narrative.
A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, travel and death
If you are in the UK, click here to look inside or buy
If you are in the US (or want to read reviews), click here
Q: You’ve mentioned one of your main protagonists, Bubbles and she intrigues me. What words best describe her?
At 90, Bubbles is still feisty, curious, adventurous, lustful, fun loving, risk taking, and determined to live life on her terms.
Q: At what point in writing the book did you come up with its title?
The original title of the book, which it had from the beginning, was A Highland Fling. However, after revising the manuscript, I realised that A Highland Fling was too limiting, suggesting that all of the action takes place in Scotland. In reality, these women are motivated by various definitions of fling: a brief period of indulging one’s impulses; a usually brief attempt or effort; or a brief sexual or romantic relationship. A Scottish dance has only a brief mention in the book. Hence Fling!
Q: So where else is the book set and how did you decide on its setting?
Fling! starts in Canada where the two main characters, 57-year-old Feather and her 90-year-old mother Bubbles, start their journey to Mexico. On the way, they stop in the San Francisco Bay Area, and segments of the book also take place in Scotland and return to Canada at times. But its heart is in Mexico.
These settings were determined by the characters and where they were born. Bubbles is from Portree, Isle of Skye, but moved to Canada when she was 15. Feather was born in Canada, but moved to California when she was 23. The two women end up in Mexico because Bubbles’ mother, Heather, had died in Mexico City in the early 1920s. The Mexico City Dead Letter Office has sent Bubbles a letter asking her to claim her mother’s ashes that were left there 70 years earlier. The Dead Letter Office can’t send the ashes in the mail ‘for health reasons’. That letter sets off Feather and Bubbles on their quest.
Q: Was your novel inspired by any real life events? And, if so, how do you deal with the responsibility that comes with this?
Fling! began because I was curious about my mother’s mother, someone I had never met. Early in the 20th C, my grandfather, a former Scottish schoolmaster in Scotland’s highlands, immigrated to Calgary, Canada, hoping to find a better life there for himself and his family. Meanwhile, WWI broke out, and his wife and five kids couldn’t join him for seven years. When they did, my grandmother couldn’t adjust to the brutal winters or to her husband. After being there a year, she moved out, refusing to put up with my grandpa’s verbal and physical abuse, and became a housekeeper for a wealthy family. The story is that her boss became her lover and took her to Mexico with him. She never returned and died there. I wanted to try and recreate what life might have been like for her once she left Canada, and that then brought in a number of other characters that inhabit the novel.
While some aspects of Fling! have seeds in my history of growing up in Canada and in family, those origins shift from autobiographical into art when I start writing. None of the characters are specifically modelled on people I know, but they may all be, at least partially, based on characteristics of people I have known in Canada and elsewhere. Or they may be totally invented.
Q: Do you think that self-revelation is part of the writing process?
I don’t think we can be serious writers without undressing completely, externally and internally, in our works. How else can we explore the vastness of life and its many dimensions? While we may be inventing characters and situations, fragments of our selves can’t help but be embedded in our work. Some writers are more autobiographical than others and therefore more revealing in that sense. But even in my novel Bone Songs (to be released in November 2016), which is not at all autobiographical, I reveal myself in the ideas I explore there. I am not at all like the amoral main character, Curva Peligrosa, but I do share some of her attitudes and beliefs. So the autobiographical gets intertwined with the fiction, and a writer can’t avoid being revealed in the process.
Q: Do you find yourself returning to any recurring themes within your writing and, if so, are you any closer to finding an answer? Or, more simply put, What is the question that keeps you writing?
There isn’t only one question that sparks my writing. I have always been a curious person, so I’m interested in many things, but especially the BIG questions: Why are we here? What does it mean to be human? What role does the unconscious have in our lives? How can women become more equal/powerful in a world that still favours males? I think my work so far explores some of these question and more!
Q: Khaled Hosseini says that he feels he is discovering a story rather than creating it. Are you an avid plotter or do you start with a single idea and let the novel develop organically?
Yes, I’m in Hosseini’s camp. When I start writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I have no idea where I’m going. That’s the fun part of writing for me: the quest. The heading off into the dark with very little light guiding me. I’m not sure I even have an ‘idea’ at the beginning of a work. For example, my novel Bone Songs started with an image. I had read in the paper about a tornado hitting a small town near the city where I grew up in Canada. For some reason, that image grabbed my attention, and the novel actually starts at that point, with the tornado approaching the fictional town of Weed, Alberta.
Q: What are you working on at the moment?
Since I have just signed a three-book contract with Pen-L Publishing, the press that released Fling! and will be publishing Freefall: A Divine Comedy, and Bone Songs will be released later this year, I have a lot of revision to do, the fine-tuning that’s necessary before a book goes public.
Q: What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
It’s lovely to be published, but the demands of marketing can be overwhelming at times. I have about a dozen Facebook groups that I need to keep up with in addition to Twitter. Pinterest. Instagram, etc. Finding lovely bloggers like yourself that are interested in doing reviews or book reviews is time consuming. Then there is scheduling and doing readings. Keeping up my blog and blog posts. It leaves me very little time to write!
Q: Is there a phrase or quote about writing that you particularly like?
I love John Cheevers quote: “I write to make sense of my life.” I feel that’s what I’m doing when I write.
Lily has kindly allowed me to include a teaser for Fling! This short piece takes place in Mexico City in 1996.
After Feather leaves for the pyramids, Bubbles makes her move. The urn she saw at the museum containing the dead children gave her an idea. She wants one like it to carry her mother in, something pretty and shapely with big flowers painted all over it. She can’t just carry the ashes around in a shoebox.
She tucks some pesos into her brassiere and carries only coins in the shoulder bag she straps across her body, clasping it close to her, protective of its contents.
Hair fluffed up and a slash of deep red lipstick applied to her lips, she likes what she sees in the mirror. It’s difficult believing she’s ninety, except when she looks at her naked body, skin and bones playing tug-of-war with each other. Her legs are still good though. Nothing flabby about them. And they carry her where she needs to go. Better than some old people she’s seen who use canes or walkers. She can’t complain.
Outside the hotel, it takes a few minutes to get used to the noises and smells and crowds of people filling the streets. Feeling dizzy, she almost loses her balance, grabbing hold of a building to steady herself and get her bearings. She grips her bag and pats it, reassured it’s still there.
Only one thing fills her mind—an urn. She’s oblivious to the hands reaching out, trying to sell her things; to the beggars sitting on the sidewalk, some holding babies; to her own aches and pains. Her heart wants to go out to these people, and she almost loses her focus, thinking of the pesos in her purse. But then the urn image crowds out other thoughts, and she pursues her course, heading instinctively for a market near the hotel. They’d passed it in the taxi.
Some inner compass guides her through the tangle of people and stands, past the tantalising smell of food that vendors are cooking right on the streets. They’re selling things Bubbles has never seen before and can’t even name. Feather’s warning keeps her from sampling some of the food: Never, never eat anything from a street vendor. You’ll get sick as death. But the tantalising odours make her recent breakfast of fruit and rolls fade.
Wavering, she almost gives in to the call of her senses. Then she veers away, back on course, the urn image driving all others away. She keeps walking, stepping over scrawny stray mutts and beggars. The market suddenly appears, and her heart beats faster. She passes sombreros of every size and colour. A man plops one on her head, and the brim flaps around her ears. She doesn’t like having her hair mussed up, so she knocks away the hat, fluffing her white curls again.
The leather purses hanging all over one stall almost stop her. Real leather. You can’t find that any more in Canada. It’s all fake—made to look like the real thing. She stops for a minute and picks up a bag or two, sniffing at them, loving the smell and the feel.
And then she sees it, the perfect urn. Its shape reminds her of a pregnant woman, narrow at the top and full beneath. No legs, of course. The lip reaches Bubbles’ knees, surface covered with white and gold flower petals intertwined with leaves on a deep blue background.
While she circles the vessel, a caramel-skinned woman (caramels are her favorite candy, and just the sight of that skin makes her salivate), long hair pulled back into a bun, seems to appear from inside the urn. She stalks Bubbles, the two circling it together. Whichever way Bubbles turns, the woman follows. “1000 pesos, Señora.”
Except for the skin colour, the woman could be her mother, the same height and shape, the same hairstyle. Why is her mother offering her money? Bubbles blinks, glare of the mid-morning sun glinting off her glasses. Confused, she thinks her mother’s ashes already were in the urn and someone had added water to them, resurrecting her. It makes sense that her mother’s skin would be darker now, after so many years in México.
Bubbles feels buoyant again, as she did in Perda Varta, her own skin and bones no heavier than ash. A mariachi band strolls past. Playing guitars, all the men wear white sombreros, ornately embroidered short jackets, and long trousers. She recognises the song they’re singing, “Spanish Eyes.” They stop and serenade her.
For the second time in her life, she’s speechless, so many handsome men pouring out their hearts to her all at once; she finally understands why her mother went to México and stayed. Bubbles would have done the same thing if she’d had a choice.
And then they’re gone, drifting through the crowds, their music lingering. Gripping her purse, she suddenly feels exhausted, remembering Feather’s words: The high altitude’s going to tire you, Mum. Don’t try to do too much. She looks for a shady place to sit down.
Where’s her mother gone?
A young boy, hair hanging in his eyes and reminding Bubbles of her own sons, shoves an armful of copper bracelets in her face. “Souvenirs, señora. 200 pesos.” The caramel-skinned woman creeps up behind Bubbles and whispers in her ear. “800 pesos, señora, and I wrap it free.”
Hungry and thirsty, Bubbles lurches towards a fruit stand, intent on the empty folding chair she sees, flopping onto it. You can eat anything that has a skin on it, Feather has said.
Bubbles dips into her handbag, shading the contents from view, and pulls out the change purse, studying the coins inside. She grabs a handful and scatters them on the counter, pointing at a banana. She sees a coconut like the one she drank from in Perda Varta and gestures at it, too, making a slurping motion with her mouth.
The caramel-skinned woman sidles up to Bubbles and leans over conspiratorially: “500 pesos, señora, my best offer. You never see another like it.”
Bubbles sips on the coconut milk from a straw, staring into space, wondering how she’ll get back to the hotel. She looks around at the streets leading out of the market, unable to remember which one she took to get there. As if reading her mind, the caramel-skinned woman presses closer to Bubbles: “400 pesos, señora, and I carry it to hotel for you.”
At the Sheraton, Feather has already returned. She’s standing in the lobby, talking to two policemen, pointing and gesturing frantically with her hands. “Mia madre, está mucho short and mucho wide.” They just shrug their shoulders.
Frustrated, Feather spins around, just in time to see her mother hanging onto a woman’s arm, following a boy of about ten onto the elevator; he’s carrying a vase on his head.
Feather runs across the lobby, trying to catch the elevator before it ascends. The doors glide shut. Out of breath, she stumbles into the next elevator. When she reaches their floor, she finds her mum banging on their door. She doesn’t have a key.
“What’s going on? I thought you’d been kidnapped.”
“Oh, Feather, look what I found for Mother’s ashes.” The caramel-skinned woman thrusts the vase into Feather’s arms, almost knocking her over.
Feather—arms wrapped around the vase and face scrunched against its surface—manages to spit out, “Take this goddamn thing before I drop it.”
The boy dives for the vase, missing, wrapping his arms around Feather’s legs. The woman yells at the boy, “Pablo, tú idiot!” He lets go of her and straightens up, banging his head on the bottom of the vase. Feather staggers over to the door, dragging the boy along, puts the key in the lock, and opens the door.
They all fall into the room.
Feather had found the post office earlier and picked up her grandmother’s ashes while she was out. They were packed in a battered cardboard box, yards of twine binding it. The postmistress handed her an envelope that had come with the box. “aqui, Señora. ésa es para usted también.”
She had opened the envelope, the paper brown and cracked with age. All the words were in Spanish, and she could make out only a few.
“¿habla inglés?” she now asks the woman with the vase.
“Sí, I speak a leetle.”
“What does this letter say?”
“¿me enseña él?” The woman holds the paper at arm’s length and reads haltingly.
‘My name Maria. Look after Senora Heather ashes till now (80 years old). Expect some person any day looking for ashes. Now I dying. Box and letter explain everything. Senora Heather very good at me. So young my mother die. Me fifteen and Senora Heather die. Took care the lady in last. She tell to me much on you and sons. Talk at Skye many times. Kidneys very bad. Drank many gallons water at last. Swell like with child. Die and priest bless body. Senora Heather threw up water. Poured from Senora like downpour of heaven. Soak priest clothes. Bible. Everything. Priest faint. I splash water over and he wake. Ran from room frightened. Dog with tail between legs. Never saw priest again.’
Her mum laughs and says, “Mother never did like priests.”
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