Discover more from Letterbox: Bookish & Filmish
Letterbox: Bookish + Filmish
Edition 20: Origin Stories + London Book Fair + Book & Film RECs.
When my sisters and I were bored or listless, depressed or anguished, our mother would inevitably say, ‘you need a project.’ It set our teeth on end.
Did she not understand the nature of heartache? The cruel injustice of the world that handed things to other people – whether that was a loving partner, a paying job, good health or the opportunity to chase your dreams – and denied it to you?
Thanks for reading Letterbox! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
We wanted to wallow in our misery. Not get on with it, which was the inevitable message at the heart of the Scottish sayings she peppered our lives with:
“Keep the heid!” (Keep calm; get on with it.)
"You're a wee scunner!" (You’re a little whiner.)
“Failing means yer playin!” (You may be failing, but at least you’re trying.)
“Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye!” (Fate will deliver what’s meant for you. The inspirational one – Scottish style. )
My mother was raised by a long line of stubborn, loving matriarchs who had done just that through difficult times, including my mother’s childhood polio in 1940s war-torn Britain, with food rations extremely tight and a father away at war.
My great-grandmother would walk my mother by the seaside for hours a day in the belief that sea air would cure the polio, then one of the most feared disease in the world, with affected children often depending on an iron lung for survival. A vaccine was still fifteen years away, and medical staff scarce.
In 1945, my mother would go on as a child to live in Karachi (India, until partition) and Kowloon in Hong Kong, when her father joined British Overseas Airway Company to work on sea-plane airports. There was also a year quarantined on a houseboat on the Nile after their immunization papers were stolen.
(Proving vaccination in order to travel is nothing new. Adults used to be able to do it without being wee scunners about it, shutting down cities or borders. . .)
Eventually, the family made their way to Canada where my teenager mother promptly fell in love with a handsome, Irish Catholic life-of-the-party whirlwind, just about the worst choice possible in the eyes of Scottish Presbyterian parents.
My parents-to-be eloped to Cork, settled in London, had three daughters and emigrated to Canada to have the fourth. Loved, laughed, fought, divorced, met other people, got cancer, got better, got sick again. The usual human experience.
My mother, Jessica Wilson Burton (Walsh, for a few decades there) passed away in late February in her 86th year. Herself an author, as well as beloved mother, daughter, sister, grandmother and great mother. Career woman and provider. Gatherer of lonely people, convener of large dinner parties. Firm believer that all people are created equal, respect is earned, and injustice must be fought.
Her loss has left a wound in me so raw that six weeks later I’m still unable to finish her obituary. I’ve told almost no-one people (until now. . .) because saying it out loud risks meaning it’s actually true. We were so close and I feel alone, although of course I’m not. I have a partner, three sisters with shared memories and loads of extended family – really, I’m so fortunate.
But our parents, in particular our mothers, are the ultimate origin story. And, as every successful Hollywood franchise knows, there’s nothing more compelling to humans than the mystery of the beginning.
It’s the chimera that promises completion, insight so profound we’ll finally understand who our parents were as people, whether they loved us enough and why they acted in the way they did (insert behaviour A, different for everyone but inevitably there) that left us feeling somehow incomplete.
I’ve work with hundreds of emerging writers through the literary organization I founded/run, Diaspora Dialogues. I’ve read thousands of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama submissions. The most consistent thread despite differences in age, gender/gender expression or cultural background, is the inner child looking to bridge an unknowable distance to their parents and thus heal themselves.
Somewhere in my 30s, I realized my mother had been right about most things. Saving yourself (with help as necessary) does feel better than waiting to be saved by others. Keeping busy does help you through difficult times. And contemplation can be found in action; meditation in movement.
One day in March, lying on the couch with a box of tissue, I reached out for my cup of tea and knocked over a tall pile of unread newspapers and magazines. Out fell a NYT section dedicated to soups. Hello mother, I thought to myself, as I sat up, and started flipping through the pages.
If any of us had a cold, my mother would head to the fridge for onions, carrots, and celery to make lentil soup. When she was diagnosed twelve years ago with cancer, I got cracking on big pots of bone broth and casseroles. In our childhood there wasn’t much money for restaurant meals, but there was a crock pot, a pressure cooker, homemade meals and a fundamental belief in the power of real food to heal.
In the past few weeks, close friends have asked if I felt my mother’s presence around me. I’ve been embarrassed to say no. No art at a tilt. Furniture in the wrong place. Objects mysteriously moved. Why wasn’t she haunting me, I wondered. What was I, chopped liver?
But with the NYT in my hand, I suddenly felt her there. None of this ethereal wafting about for Jessica Wilson Burton; only direct action would do. I rose to my feet, jotted down an ingredients list and walked to the store.
My new project? I’m working my way through all twenty-four receipts in the NYT pull-out. I don’t eat pork, rarely eat beef or lamb, and the idea of pickles in a soup kind of makes me gag. But I’m just going with it, cooking one by one by one. Feeding the people I love and starting to the ring-fence the void.
No lives are being saved through my project; no injustices fought. But sometimes the greatest insights come from small and intimate rather than large and earth-shattering. Along the way, I’m writing a longer piece, a meditation on the mother-daughter relationship, on memory and belonging, and the nature of grief and joy.
Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all. – Harriet van Horne
Only the pure in heart can make a good soup. – Ludwig van Beethoven
À la prochaine, Mom. ❤️
I’m off in a few days back to London. The London Book Fair, a sprawling “global marketplace for rights negotiation and the sale and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film and digital channels” takes place 18-20 April, and I’m attending for the first time.
The in-person event usually welcomes more than 25,000 publishing professionals (writers, agents, publishers, scouts, etc) as well as the general public. While not quite up to 2019 numbers, it’s anticipated to be 30% busier than last year (the fair was virtual in 2021 and cancelled in 2020) with the return of a significant number of international attendees.
I’m going for a combination of meetings and networking, a series of professional seminars and talk, and a full-day Writer’s Summit. I was fortunate to sell my first book, Pull Focus, without an agent, but feel I would benefit now from strategic guidance as I have a new manuscript, another on the go, and film/tv scripts in the works. I’m on the hunt for the right agent. Wish me luck (or send me a referral)!
I was delighted to see Janika Oza, an alum of our Diaspora Dialogues mentoring program, included in this Publisher’s Weekly article about buzzy upcoming books being promoted at the LBF. It’s been amazing to see so many DD alum published the past several years (6 this spring alone) or signing publishing contracts. The depth of talent in our programs is extraordinary, and we’re rooting for everyone’s success.
For those in Toronto, you won’t want to miss Word on the Street’s upcoming festival, May 27-28th in Queen’s Park or #Motive TO, the crime and mystery festival produced by Toronto International Festival of Authors, June 24th. I wish I were in Toronto 17 April for TIFA’s event featuring Mellissa Fung and Louise Penny, at Winter Garden Theatre, my favourite Toronto venue. Tickets HERE.
This spring’s Hay Festival 25 May-June 4 in Wales also has a fantastic line-up. Love the format they’ve evolved since I was there in 2018, with its focus on preparing people for direct action on food, health and environmental sustainability; exercise (morning yoga, lots of walking tours); issues of the day; author talks; cross-disciplinary events (concerts, comedy shows, news quizzes, etc). There’s nothing more magical than being immersed in art and conversation amongst rolling countryside.
The BBC has a major programming presence at UK literary festivals. I’ve never understood why CBC doesn’t do similar in Canada.
Spring Books and Films.
In my last newsletter, I listed films I was due to see at Sundance Festival in Utah. Sadly, I didn’t use many of my tickets, as I rushed home early to be with my mom when she was first hospitalized for the first time. One I saw, Past Lives, left me deep in gratitude for art that moves the soul and engages the imagination.
The film follows Nora And Hae Sung, two deeply connected childhood friends torn apart when Nora’s family emigrates to Toronto. They’re reunited twenty years late in NYC for one fateful week “as they confront notions of destiny, love and the choices that make a life in this heartrending modern romance.”
Heartrending, it certainly is. And extraordinary. Past Lives is the debut film by writer/director Celine Song who, like her protagonist, grew up in South Korea, emigrated to Toronto as a young adult, then eventually moved to New York to become a writer. (Celine is a playwright and now a filmmaker.) Past Lives opens theatrically June 2/23. This film will be buzzy come award season; don’t miss it!
I’ve been enjoying lots of great television shows on the streamers – mostly BritBox, Prime and to a lesser extent Disney+. I’ve found Netflix less compelling lately.
They adapted A Spy Among Us, by one of my favourite non-fiction authors Ben McIntyre, whose most recent book Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle I’m currently reading. The writing is excellent, as is the acting by Damian Lewis (Wolf Hall, Billions, Band of Brothers) and Guy Pearce (a filmography too long to list), though I’m not a fan of the dark cinematography of many UK shows.
Other series recently enjoyed: Shrinking on Apple+ for half-hour comedy and the unbelievably good adaption of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses (currently shooting Season 4 in London); The Bay and Beyond Paradise on BritBox; always The Mandalorian on Disney+ because it’s a hard heart that doesn’t love the Baby Yoda and Only Murders in the Building (new season soon!) where people die, and somehow it feels innocent.
I’d also like to see Rabbit Hole, the new series starring Kiefer Sutherland on Paramount+. They location scouted our cabin for the series, which was shot north of Toronto, but decided in the end it wasn’t derelict enough!
Below are a few of the Spring/Summer novels I’ve bought or will buy. A tsunami of titles get published every season; estimates say 3 million titles (traditional + self-published) annually in the US alone. (This depressing article about the current state of publishing been making the rounds on social.)
Rebecca Makkai, I Have Some Questions For You, which follows a L.A. podcaster who goes returns to her boarding school and obsesses about a murder that took place there in the 1990s. I’m queasy about the morality of true-crime, where the audience risks being a participant in the re-victimization of families. But it’s propulsive, and squarely at the centre of our current zeitgeist. (Of course this book is already optioned with planned adaptation into a series.) Feb 2023.
Kevin Jared Hosein, Hungry Ghosts, set in 1940s Trinidad, tracing various members of a multiracial community grappling with poverty, emotional connection, and hereditary pain. Feb 2023.
Catherine Hernandez, The Story of Us, the story of Mary Grace, a Filipina PSW who arrives in Toronto with the hope of building a new life and sponsoring her husband and children, only to find belonging and family in unexpected ways. Feb 2023.
Zoe Whittall, The Fake, a deeply human novel about the scammers amongst us. March 2023.
Deepti Kapoor, Age of Vice, cinematic novel set in New Delhi that straddles the line between commercial and thriller and is getting excellent reviews. March 2023.
Lucinda Williams, Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You: A Memoir. Okay, it’s not a novel, but I read memoirs as fictional constructs since insight is subjective and memory is faulty. I’m a big fan of her music. April 2023.
Kate Morton, Homecoming, an eerie epic involving a wealthy family’s mysterious deaths in Adelaide Hills, South Australia. April 2023.
Denise Da Costa, And the Walls Came Down, a beautiful novel about family, identity, love and loss. (I blurbed this book. It left such an imprint I’d wake up thinking about it.) June 2023.
Katherine Reay, A Shadow in Moscow, because I love myself a good spy novel, especially one with finely researched details. June 2023.
Daniel Silva, The Collector, the latest in his Gabriel Allon spy thriller series that also involve the art restoration world. I’ve read them all. July 2023.
Zalika Reid Benta, River Muma, a magical realist novel about a millennial Black woman who navigates her quarter-life-crisis while embarking on a quest through the streets of Toronto. August 2023.
Substack warns me this is getting too long, so Industry News and Gossips will make a reappearance next issue including crazed book bans, a threatened return of the millennial music debacle the Frye Festival (a fictionalized version of which is in my second novel), and debates about how AI/Chat GPT will ruin everything. But I’ll leave you with this Esquire article about how President Obama chooses his reading lists.
All book buzz is manufactured. Like politics, publishing has seen a hallowing out of the middle in favour of the extreme ends of the bell curve: the bestsellers and the books that sell 300-500 copies. The days when a writer might live by selling 25,000-50,000 copies (combined with income from teaching, working, grants, spousal supports, etc) is gone except for very few.
There are many reasons for this, including the interest that agents/ publishers (themselves operating on thin margins) have in promoting those books/writers they’ve invested the most time and money in, and where they stand the best chance of an economic return. Hence the narrowing of the buzz.
A bestseller doesn’t mean a book is better than most other books. Nor does its ability to generate media attention, inclusion on ‘best-of’ or ‘highly anticipated’ lists. This stands true for my own list above. For every book I chose, there was another 25 on my immediate radar screen I could have chosen. Ten times that amount with a little research. Buzz means that luck and the marketing machine has shone their magic on a particular title, and agents/publicists have spent considerable time pitching and re-pitching editors with whom they’ve developed relationships over drinks over the years.
(For writers on this list, this blog post by publicist Cassie Mannes Murray about why some books catch fire is super interesting.)
Spoiler alert: the Esquire article digs but is unable to find evidence that the former president’s book recommendations are engineered by anyone other than himself! It’s surprising to me, given what I know about the industry. But a) if anyone is going to rise above expectation it’s President Obama, and b) how wonderful to be surprised by ‘the better angels of our nature’ to quote another US president.
Bye for now. Thank you for joining me for this twentieth issue of Letterbox. Please connect with me @HelenWalshBooks on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Linked-In or via my website www.helenwalsh.ca
Thanks for reading Letterbox! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.