Discover more from Letterbox: Bookish & Filmish
Letterbox: Bookish & Filmish
Edition 19: Queen Mary 2 Transatlantic Crossing & Sundance Film Festival
Life of a Queen
Hello stranger. It’s been a while.
While the Prince Harry memoir Spare breaks bestselling records, and British journalists sneer yet gobble up every available column inch to denounce it (apparently despising the media pretty much guarantees they despise you back. . .), I’m here to talk about the Queen.
And I don’t mean Elizabeth II.
Last May, we took a transatlantic crossing between New York and Southampton, England on the Queen Mary 2, decades after my parents and three older sisters emigrated to Canada on another ocean liner, the Empress of Canada.
It was my first time on a large ship. “It’s a liner, darling,” one man corrected me at lunch when I used the ‘s’ word. An even greater faux pas, it turns out, is to call it a cruise. Ocean liners are designed to undertake a line voyage, between point A and point B, across a large expanse of open ocean, while cruise ships voyage closer to the coast, sailing between ports.
Until Covid hit, taking a transatlantic crossing had been a distant kind of bucket list item. It moved up the priority scale after watching travel documentaries on television during lockdown, including one about the building of a Cunard liner and the role the company played in the history of emigration to North America.
Over the years, I’d passively consumed references to ocean crossings in books and films. I had vague ideas of sitting on windswept decks, covered in woolly blankets with a tea tray beside me, reading while we slowly crossed the ocean. And in fact, I did just that, repeatedly.
On board, there’s a long corridor outside the planetarium with large historical photos of writers, actors, politicians and celebrities who frequented the Queens. A walking history tour including these two leading ladies:
Choosing a transatlantic crossing as your first major trip after onset of the pandemic began may seem an odd choice. We all watched newscasts in 2020 about ghost boats refused entry at ports, sick passengers locked in cabins, families worried about how to repatriate people or bodies home.
And, certainly, we choose our risk battles on the liner, wearing masks in the 700-seat theatre for performances and avoiding elevators, buffets and sing-a-longs.
But, from the moment we set sail from New York under the Verrazano bridge out to sea, glass of bubbly in hand, it was pure heaven. Gazing out at nothing but water (and a spectacular lunar eclipse one night) was very Zen after the fears and frustrations of the previous two years.
Imagine: Silence from telephones and digital chatter in favour of books and conversation. The sense of letting go that comes with sinking into one place for an extended time. And of course, the luxury of being pampered.
Originally, we booked into a Princess Grill suite, helped out by discounted post-recovery fares. But Cunard’s sophisticated sales apparatus kicks in; they offer repeated upgrades for modest sums as their more expensive rooms go unsold closer to voyage time. Hook firmly sunk, they reeled us up the luxury ladder until we ended up in a Queen’s Grill suite with private balcony and butler service.
The difference? A designated table in the best restaurant on the ship, with Osman, the maître d’, asking daily what special order he might arrange for our supper. Dover Sole Amandine prepared table-side? Lobster Thermador? Why not Crepes Suzette for dessert? Breakfast served to the suite on Wedgewood China, or canapés appearing at 5pm as if you hadn’t spent all day eating and had a multi-course dinner ahead.
Late at night, we’d return back to the room after a black-tie evening to find the bed turned down, chocolates on the pillow and our robes and slippers laid out, waiting, like a warm cuddle.
Heady stuff after two years watching Netflix in a hoody and some leggings, or making endless New York Times pan sheet recipes for dinner.
Life on board is a bustle. Each evening, they slip a news digest (your home country + the UK) and the next day’s itinerary of events in your room’s mailbox. The itinerary covers four pages, single spaced. There are painting and dance classes, LBGTQ+ meet-ups and wine tastings. History lectures and film screenings. Talks in the planetarium and musicals on stage. Orchestras and discos.
We’d chosen the Olivier Theatre Awards crossing (several voyages are arts-themed). Each night a different performance of an award-winning musical from Broadway or London’s West End hit the stage. During the day, the actors and directors and producers held a series of masterclasses, from dance choreography to production design to writing and directing.
In the Queen’s Grill restaurant, a retired surgeon from San Diego and his 30s husband sat at the table next to us. They were crossing from NYC to Southampton, staying a week in London, then taking a Cunard cruise up into the Fjords, before rejoining the Queen Mary 2 back to New York. Zoran and Richard were smart and funny, and we often met up with them post theatre for drinks and dancing.
At the table on the other side, Sally and Steve from Texas, were just as friendly as could be. And at the end of the row, musician Dave Stewart (from the Eurthymics) covered in tats and wearing his trademark porkpie hat, travelled with his wife, the Dutch photographer Anoushka Fisz.
Our voyage was the first transatlantic crossing of the Queen Mary 2 since lockdown. For the 1300 crew, it was a relief to get back to work. We learned that the majority of Cunard passengers are repeat, and that it was not uncommon for them and the crew to form long-lasting friendships, as they meet repeatedly over the years.
A RMT in the spa told me she had clients who lived year-round on a ship. With aggressive discounts for regular or long-voyage customers, all-in food services and a full medical team on board, it was economically comparable for seniors to live there, versus an upscale seniors’ home. These residents usually dock for a week or two around the holidays; Cunard stores their belongings and ensures they get their regular room back upon their return.
The Queen Mary 2 has twelve decks; staff cabins are on the lowest. We explored all other parts of the liner but as soon as we alighted from the stairs onto Deck 1, it felt like we were trespassing into a private realm. We lingered only long enough to read the giant murals about the history of the Cunard line, watch as chefs bustled here and there or people went into the medical clinic, before scampering away.
(The food on board was remarkably delicious and varied given it must be provisioned for seven nights at a time. Osman explained that the liner has separate fridges for everything, set to the exact temperature needed to preserve maximum freshness. So, the lettuces have a cooler separate from the blueberries separate from the asparagus, and so on.)
Michael and I wrote during the day, mostly on our balcony, sometimes visiting the library or art gallery.
We also took full advantage of the gym and the spa, got our steps in walking miles around Deck 7’s outdoor promenade (hanging on to the railings on very windy days) and splashed out at night.
Occasionally, you’d hear an announcement asking a passenger by name to immediately return to their cabin. We had a running bet whether their credit card had bounced (shop or casino or alcoholic beverages are not included) or whether they had tested positive for covid.
Our last night on ship, a letter was slipped under the door. “As you are likely aware, Covid is on the rise in the community and on the ship. . .” it started. We hadn’t been aware, but nor we were surprised. Thankfully, we ran into no issues.
All in all, it was a lovely way to spend the week, adjusting slowly as we moved closer to Greenwich Mean Time. Certainly a nicer way to play Queen than being born into the Royal Family.
Greetings from Sundance Festival!
Delighted to be back after a two-year absence. Films on tap for me include:
Past Lives, a romantic drama debut by Korean Canadian playwright Celine Song receiving rave reviews as the ‘Sundance Stunner’ and ‘a perfect film.’
Fairyland, adapted from the Alysia Abbot’s memoir about being raised by a gay single father in 1970/80s San Francisco.
Fairplay, a Wall Street psychological thriller which has sparked a fierce bidding war as well as intense audience reactions.
AUM: The Cult at the End of the World, about the Japan’s infamous doomsday cult.
You Hurt My Feelings, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus about a novelist whose world unravels when she overhears her husband admit he doesn’t like her new second book (!); a documentary on artist Nam June Paik; thriller Eileen starring Anne Hathaway that is getting mixed reviews but apparently a lot of buyer interest and the documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything.
I was so delighted that Kirkus Reviews named Pull Focus to their Best of 2022 mysteries & thrillers list !
I’ve just finished the latest draft of my second novel, tentatively titled Pull Back. It feels tighter than the previous version, thanks to terrific reader feedback from Trish Colter, Sandra Rondina, Judy Calafiore, Dee McGee, Judy Dick, Margot Pengelly and Susan Chinery.
I met these ladies through a book club group when they invited me to speak about Pull Focus. Their comments were so insightful, I asked if they might act as first readers for this new novel. And they very kindly agreed!
We met over Zoom in October, and their enthusiasm and critique spurred me to dig back in again, in particular to rewrite the ending which was too rushed. But in doing so, to start again from page 1.
I’ve also been doing some screenwriting (a draft TV pilot episode of Pull Back and a rom-com set behind the scenes of Cannes, Venice and Sundance film festivals). It’s been fun to move between the two genres of writing.
In November, I served as Writer-in-Residence for Open Book, a website devoted to Ontario-based publishers and writers. From How to Cook a Book (a tongue-in-cheek recipe for writing and publishing your first book) and How to Cook a Look (reinvention after trial by fire) to Writing Compelling Characters inspired by a visit last August to the Borghese Gallery in Rome, all the pieces are available HERE.
I adapted the “How to Cook a Book” recipe into a talk, which I gave at the B&R Club in Toronto in November at the kind invitation of Jane Gibson. The conversation with the lively, receptive audience was super fun.
News & Gossips.
Adult fiction sales rose in 2022, led by romance titles (52% increase), with fantasy titles second, followed by graphic novels. This includes the TikTok drive phenom that is romance/thriller author Colleen Hoover. CoHo, as she’s referred to, has possessed three or four spots on the New York Times Bestseller list the past several months drive by enthusiastic #BookTok readers.
Meanwhile, non-fiction sales dropped by 10% with only one subcategory – travel – posting an increase. Traditional heavyweight categories of history, law and political science saw double digit drops.
After three years of the pandemic, with increasingly fraught political climates and fractured societies around the world, it’s no wonder escapism is all the rage.
I didn’t know of Albertan cookbook author Jean Paré until I read about her in the New York Times Canada Letter.
Ms Paré switched careers at the age of 54. And when the male-dominated industry refused to print her first cookbook, declaring the recipes too sweet, she founded her own publishing company, going on to publish more than 30 million copies.
“What do they know about what women want in a recipe?” she asked of the male publishing execs.
Ms Paré died in December at the age of 95. Clearly sugar intake didn’t stop her from living a long life – she was known for ordering dessert first or celebrating a special occasion by ordering EVERY dessert. The excellent NYT obituary can be read HERE. (It’s behind their paywall.)
I’ve been keeping a list of interesting Spring 2023 titles which I’ll share in the next newsletter!
Bye for now. Thank you for joining me for this nineteenth issue of Letterbox. Please remember to: