Imagine sitting on a narrow bench inside a dark room. Your feet are dangling into a floor of water. You’re vaguely aware of the room moving. Your ears start ringing. If you move too much, you feel the room sway, which could bring the floor rushing in to fill it. You take a breath and dive down, swim outside the room, groping the water, looking for its bottom, reaching for something valuable enough to take back with you.
If you’ve ever pushed an upside-down cup into water, reached inside, and found it still empty, you’ve encountered a diving bell. It’s a simple concept: The water’s pressure forces the air, which has nowhere else to go, inside the “bell.” Once people realized that trapped air contains breathable oxygen, they took large pots, stuck their heads inside, and jumped into the nearest body of water. In the 2,500 years since, the device has been refined and expanded to allow better access to the ocean’s depths. But that access has not come without human cost.
The panic starts in London. I’m there publicizing my last book, and at a small press lunch, my British publicist tells me that she’s just read the novel I’ve recently finished writing. She leans close to me and says, quietly, “You should prepare yourself for invasive publicity.”
Oh, dread, I remember you. There are authors who blur the boundaries between themselves and their work: Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner come to mind. Elif Batuman has described her new novel, “The Idiot,” as a “semi-autobiographical novel.” But I’ve always found the presumption of autobiography when applied to my work a little lazy and a lot unfair.
Normally, I’m a very focused writer. I work to a schedule: five days a week, 5,000 words a day. I work until I finish a project, I take a little time off, and then I set to work on a new project. Some of these projects get published, others languish on the collection of external hard drives that have begun to clutter my apartment. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m writing.
I like to tell aspiring writers that talent, by itself, isn’t the great arbiter of who succeeds in this business—and I’m living proof. I’m proud of my books, and I’m not trying to pretend to be modest, but I’ve always believed that raw talent doesn’t mean a thing without discipline. And until last spring, I had that in droves.
Then it happened. I handed in the final draft of The Forgotten Girls, my upcoming novel, and instead of turning my hand to next year’s novel, as I’d normally do, I turned off the computer, bought a camera and a radio scanner, packed up my Jeep and drove off to the woods. And there, instead of writing, I took pictures of trains.
Canadian English, like other varieties of the language, is decidedly a real entity, despite a certain perception among Americans (and even some Canadians) that it is more or less an exaggerated version of Minnesota speech, peppered with “eh” and a funny way of saying “about.” Canada is a huge country, with many influences, chiefly British English, American English, French, and various native languages. Tracing the patterns of these influences is the job of the historical lexicographer.