Four writers, four questions #2 Susan Ketchen

Here’s the second in­stall­ment of Four Writers, Four Questions. Installment #3 will be pos­ted next week.

What are you work­ing on right now?

I am work­ing on a new nov­el. There seem to be a lot of dogs in it. A dead body is found and lost and found again but in the wrong place. People try to be help­ful but make everything more com­plic­ated. The dogs be­have badly, just as they of­ten do in real life, and their own­ers are al­ways in deni­al. Still, it is fic­tion. I’m about halfway in and don’t know what it’s about, though some­times when I’ve com­pleted a nov­el I still don’t know what it’s about. I prefer to leave that mat­ter to read­ers anyway.

Why is this mean­ing­ful to you?

Relationships are per­plex­ing. Whether they are between people, or between people and oth­er an­im­als, re­la­tion­ships are com­plic­ated, many-layered and in some ways un­know­able. I like to ex­plore this per­plex­ity by writ­ing about it.

What is your process?

I start each day with the usu­al eating/​brushing/​dressing routines, and be­fore I park my butt in a chair for the no-longer-re­com­men­ded peri­od of sit­ting, I get a little ex­er­cise by tend­ing to the horses. Then I have a cof­fee and reac­quaint my­self with my brain and my hus­band be­fore head­ing to my office.

P1020091_2_2I re-read what I wrote the day be­fore, do min­im­al edit­ing, then plunge ahead. 1,000 words is the min­im­um sat­is­fy­ing amount. If I do 2,000 I am ec­stat­ic. Usually I have only a vague sense of where I am go­ing; this is where the ma­gic happens.

I write un­til I have 35,000 words and some sort of end­ing, then I go back and edit. Some people edit down, but I edit up. I aim for 50,000 words, which is short for a nov­el, but my brain has trouble hold­ing onto a lar­ger universe.

When I have 50,000 and (hope­fully) a great end­ing, I edit again, print each chapter and read it aloud to my guardedly crit­ic­al husband.

I make a few changes, and send the ma­nu­script to one or two trus­ted read­ers. I make more changes based on their com­ments. That’s the end of my writ­ing pro­cess and the be­gin­ning of the “What am I go­ing to do with this ma­nu­script?” process.

Why do you write?

Brene Brown says that un­used cre­ativ­ity is not be­nign. It’s some­thing like a bor­der col­lie that lives in an apart­ment: if you don’t give it a job, it will find one. Furniture may suffer.

Sometimes I use my cre­ativ­ity for tasks oth­er than writ­ing nov­els. I may need to deal with the med­ic­al sys­tem, or neigh­bours with dogs, or con­flict­ing opin­ions about the longev­ity of my car.

At oth­er times, when life is be­ing agree­able, I use my cre­ativ­ity on ima­gin­ary worlds, be­cause if I don’t I will cre­ate drama and dif­fi­culty where in fact there is none. Or prob­ably there is none. Or there is none if I ig­nore it for long enough.

Outside of the po­ten­tial ma­lig­nancy prob­lem, I write be­cause I like to make people laugh. I like to ex­plore things I don’t really un­der­stand by writ­ing about them. And I like it when I can trans­mit my thoughts or ex­plor­a­tions out into the world.

Susan Ketchen is the au­thor of the Born That Way series, fea­tur­ing a four­teen-year old girl born with Turner Syndrome. The fourth in the series, Rides That Way, will be pub­lished by Oolichan Books in the fall of 2016



Cougars are strong…smart too

Cougars are ex­quis­itely built killing ma­chines cap­able of tak­ing down an an­im­al sev­en times their size. But this strength can’t be fully ap­pre­ci­ated un­less witnessed.

A 2001 video taken in New Mexico shows a 70-kilo­gram (150-pound) cou­gar tack­ling a 120-kilogrom (265-pound) mule deer.maxablebcr2.jpg

The strength of the cou­gar as it takes down this deer is in­cred­ible. Even be­ing kicked re­peatedly in the head by sharp hooves does not per­suade the cat to let go. And when its ini­tial at­tempts to kill the deer don’t work, the cou­gar em­ploys a new strategy.

Don’t for­get to watch the tip of the cougar’s tail.

On the Edge

A couple of years ago I worked on a photo-doc­u­ment­ary pro­ject with pho­to­graph­er Barry Peterson. We in­ter­viewed and pho­to­graphed people who were home­less, had been home­less or were in danger of be­com­ing homeless.

The stor­ies were mov­ing in a way I nev­er ex­pec­ted. I learned that no mat­ter where or how a per­son lived, they still had hopes and dreams, just like I do. They ex­per­i­enced joy, sad­ness, fear. They did whatever was ne­ces­sary to survive.

Every October I post one of the stor­ies and pho­tos from that pro­ject on my blog. I do this to hon­our the people I met, to re­cog­nize their strength in the face of ad­versity and their abil­ity to find hu­mour in the bleak­est of moments.

Below is Jessica’s story. I got an email from her last year. She’d had her op­er­a­tion, was do­ing some vo­lun­teer work and was dat­ing. There were still chal­lenges in her life but she was happy.

Jessica, age 45 

      Jessica had it all: a spouse, a car, a job and a house in Europe. But every time her life seemed per­fect, it fell apart. At 28, di­vorced and un­em­ployed, a friend stuck a needle in her arm to make her feel bet­ter. That was the be­gin­ning of a 12-year cycle of drug ad­dic­tion, re­hab, build­ing a life and then dis­ap­pear­ing into the streets and drugs again.

As a home­less per­son Jessica has been beaten un­con­scious and ur­in­ated on in Victoria, wit­nessed murders in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and got­ten food pois­on­ing from dump­ster diving. She’s been pro­nounced DOA three times and, while liv­ing in a Courtenay tent city, bull­dozers flattened her tent and be­long­ings. “When you’re home­less people look at you like you’re not worthy of breath­ing the same air,” she says. “But I’ve met lots of in­tel­li­gent, ar­tic­u­late people on the street. Heroin and co­caine don’t discriminate.”

Two years ago Jessica real­ized the only way to beat her drug ad­dic­tion was to deal with the fact that she was a fe­male stuck in a man’s body. She’d grown up in Ontario and Victoria and was a jock in high school. But when she was 17 her moth­er dis­covered her hid­den girl clothes. After that trau­mat­ic scene, Jessica did everything she could to hide her sexu­al­ity. But 25 years later she knew she had two choices: live her life as a wo­man or com­mit sui­cide. A street nurse helped her ob­tain hor­mone ther­apy and Jessica moved to Courtenay to make a clean start. She cur­rently lives in a small base­ment room, is drug-free and eagerly await­ing her va­gino­plasty. Once her trans­ition is com­plete she wants to be­come an esthetician.

Jessica’s grate­ful to be off the street but life’s a struggle. After rent, there’s less than $100 for gro­cer­ies and with “38D boobs and a voice like Joe Cocker,” she’s of­ten faced with cruel and even vi­ol­ent be­ha­viour when out in pub­lic. “It’s sad that people fear and ri­dicule trans­gendered people,” she says. “It’s some­thing that hap­pens at birth, not a mat­ter of choice. I’m happy now; I wish people could ac­cept that.”


Preparing to Launch Part 2 — guest blog by Harold Macy

Whatever the occa­sion, go­ing to town re­quires thought as to dress, or could re­quire thought if one was giv­en to care. A quick run to the feed store or Central Builders is pretty straight­for­ward. But for such an event as a book launch, espe­cially if it is one’s own book launch, may call for a bit addi­tional consideration.

If it is a high-brow lit­er­ary event, would I wear the tried and true tweed jack­et with suede el­bow patches, pos­sibly over a sweat­er vest? — how time­less is that combo? Or is it so dated to be pathet­ic. Or per­haps I could try the po-mo look — lots of black, maybe even a fake pier­cing and a temp ‘tat.’

My cri­teria are not driv­en by the whims and caprice of the Style Section of the Globe and Mailwhich we buy each Saturday, but rather by neces­sity. Something that doesn’t show dog hair is high on the list. There is enough black hair in the seat crevices and cranny’s of my truck to knit a new hound. Something that relates to the weath­er, usu­ally water­proof, rein­forces the gum­boot archetype.

Harold Macy is the au­thor of The Four Storey Forest, As Grow the Trees, So too the Heart

But really, I don’t care. I take les­sons from my Grandpa. His long legs were per­petu­ally clad in blue den­im over­alls. Annually, upon Grandma’s ur­ging, he bought a new pair, stiff as boards, which he ini­tially saved for church. After a few months, they be­came his town and house pair. Eventually they were worn in the shop, on the tract­ors and in the calv­ing barn do­ing the chores he loved. After a year or so on this duty, they were fit only for wipe rags. Grandma made quilt squares from any sec­tion that was not thread­bare, grease stained or soiled by the wet but messy mir­acles of anim­als, but there were only few.

But it is not your clothes that are no­ticed at a book launch. It’s your fingernails.

I gave a talk re­cently and was set­ting up to sell and sign books to the good folks in line, money in hand. I glanced down at my hands and saw the half-moon of cargo delin­eat­ing each and every nail. Not only that but there was a stub­born smear of chain­saw oil giv­ing the edge of my hand a del­ic­ate blush of purple, not un­like a fresh bruise. Various scratches. Enough grit in my fin­ger­tips to make cop prints and a dust­ing of Merville Silt, appar­ently a par­tic­u­lar nox­ious ele­ment accord­ing to the Sears Carpet Cleaning Technician who does our rugs once a year.

So, as the first pink-fingered, smooth-handed lady passed me my book to sign, I al­most felt the urge to make some glot­tal grunt to match what really mattered, my hands there on the page. Now her page. Soiled. She glanced down at the vir­ginal page, at my stub­born grime and made a small si­lent “Oh” with her mouth. I felt her gaze, looked up, and gave a wan smile.

Don’t worry about the clothes, check your fin­ger­nails first.

Paula’s note: Harold ori­gin­ally sent the above in as a com­ment to Preparing to Launch, a guest blog by Susan Ketchen. It’s so well writ­ten — and funny — that I de­cided to run it as Preparing to Lauch Part 2

The sub­ject of clothes, fin­ger­nails and po­ten­tially em­bar­rass­ing mo­ments that hap­pen to au­thors at book sign­ings seems to have struck a chord for many writers. Check back in a couple of weeks for Preparing to Launch Part 3 & 4