She wrote back and praised my essay further. I thanked her and asked about her work. She told me about her writing and websites that list literary magazines to which I might want to submit. She would go on to teach me how to query agents and write pitch letters. She recommended books that taught me about the publishing industry. And she has loudly cheered every single one of my successes, big and small.
What I learned through the experience (and since) is that putting your art into the world often brings you closer to people who understand your need to create--people who can make the journey easier. What I have learned from Myf is that there are good people out there--people who care and make you want to care too. Myf is perhaps the most supportive and generous writer you will ever encounter, the kind of person you root for unabashedly.
Now Myf is publishing her first novel, ECHOLOCATION, which I loved. When you read it, you'll slip into an utterly authentic experience. Please read the teaser and high praise below before you enjoy my conversation with the talented and kind Myfanwy Collins.
Sometimes the voices that call you home lead you astray…
Cheri and Geneva grew up on “a little patch of nothing made up of dairy farms in the valleys and boarded up iron-ore mines in the mountains, a town of old folks waiting to die and young people dying to leave.” Now, Cheri has fled that life for the city, leaving Geneva behind to care for their aunt as she succumbs to cancer. Her death draws them back together, forcing them to face their past–and each other. When Cheri’s mother turns up with a strange baby and a dangerous secret close behind, the choices that follow will push all of them beyond boundaries they never thought they’d cross.
In this stunning debut novel, Myfanwy Collins lays bare the hearts of three lost women called together by their own homing instincts in a season that will change their lives–and the place they call home–forever.
Praise for ECHOLOCATION:
“Myfanwy Collins tells a deep and resonant story about people she loves, and along the way shows us how to love them as well.” —Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller
“Fearless, elegant, and accessible, Echolocation is literary fiction at its best. With heartbreakingly beautiful prose, Myfanwy Collins tells a gripping and tender tale of broken souls yearning for wholeness. These are characters who will stay with you long after you turn the last page. It’s a dazzling debut!” —Ellen Meister, author of The Other Life
“Myfanwy Collins has the goods. It’s that simple. Echolocation is about love in all its magnificent slipperiness; it’s about how secrets bind us rather than rend us; it’s about the endless series of personal reinventions we call a lifetime. And these are things we had all better be thinking–and reading–about, if we plan to try and get out of this alive.” —Ron Currie Jr., author of God is Dead and Everything Matters!
“Myfanwy Collins’ debut novel calls to mind the grim and radiant work of Daniel Woodrell. From page one, I was chilled by the landscape, caught up in the trouble, and riveted by these women of northernmost New York who slam back together and figure out how to live with what’s missing.” —Pia Z. Ehrhardt, author of Famous Fathers and Other Stories
“A moving and delicate novel, tracing the poignant destinies of women who long for a home they never had.” —Laila Lalami, author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and Secret Son
“Get ready to fall madly, sadly in love with the fiction of Myfanwy Collins.” —Benjamin Percy, author of The Wilding and Refresh, Refresh
Q: This is your debut novel, but it’s not the first novel you’ve written. I know you’ve been writing fiction for many years, publishing shorter pieces in dozens of literary magazines. (You’ve also been an extremely supportive and longtime member of the fiction writing community.) Will you talk a little about your path to publication? What made THIS book your debut—the one that ended up published? And what can other hopeful novelists learn from your journey?
Myf: Thank you for your kind words. If I’m supportive to others it's because others were supportive to me early on and I learned to pass that on. As for this book, yes, it’s definitely not the first novel I’ve written. No one will ever again read the first novel or the second one. I see now that they were practice. The third novel I wrote has potential and I believe in it, but it needs work. Echolocation is, in fact, the fourth novel I’ve written. I suppose I should feel ashamed that the first three are unpublished but I don’t. I’m certainly not the only writer out there with manuscripts in her closet. The thing is that I’m persistent and that I’m willing to learn from my mistakes. With that said, there have been times that I’ve come awfully close to giving up on myself as a writer, particularly while dealing with the pressure of parenthood and deciding what is right for my family, but I’m extremely fortunate to have supportive people around me who would not let me give up. Who have encouraged me to keep going. Friends like you, Matthew.
As for Echolocation, I did not want to let it die. I firmly believed in it. Then when I saw that Victoria Barrett had started up a new enterprise last year, we decided to query her because she has a great reputation.
So here’s the scenario: I was in the middle of reapplying to grad school, writing essays, getting recommendation letters, signing up for my GREs. I was thinking about my future, how I planned to go back to teaching in some capacity so that I could still be home when my son needed me. Basically, I was distracted and it was summer. We were sitting out on the deck with a friend enjoying a glass of wine. It was evening. I went inside to get something to eat and quickly checked my email and there--right there--was a beautifully written email from Victoria saying she wanted to publish my book. She was excited about it. She also had some ideas for revision--one of them quite major--that she wanted me to consider before I said yes. I’m sure she probably thought I’d sleep on it but I’m not much of a sleep-on-it type of person. I saw immediately that her suggested edits were exactly what the book needed. I said yes, and the next day began working on the book before the contract had even been written let alone signed.
That was in July and here we are at the end of January and the book is coming out in just over a month. The process in working with Victoria at her independent press has been outstanding. She’s been with me every step of the way and we’ve partnered on how to approach various angles of the publicity and marketing. The reality is that Echolocation is coming out at the same time that a whole slew of major books are coming out from big publishers. I should be scared about the competition but what I know is that Victoria is not going to give up on this book or me. She is in it for the long haul. And so am I. We are partners in this book. It truly feels that way, which is so wonderfully empowering.
Q: ECHOLOCATION. Can we talk about this beautiful title without giving any spoilers? Is that possible?
Myf: Usually when people hear the word, they think of dolphins, but in this case I wanted to invoke bats, which send their voice out into the dark hoping to find a sign of what is ahead of them. In this same way, the characters in the book are all in search of something--an emotion, a physical sensation, a monetary reward--to make them feel whole again, or for the first time even. They send their voices out into the metaphorical darkness in search of what they seek. Their voices either keep moving forward into nothing, or bounce back with what is needed, which might not be what is expected.
Q: Where did this story come from? Why was it important for you to tell it?
Myf: Great question. My vague answer: I’m not sure where it came from and I’m hoping readers can tell me why it was important for me to tell.
Q: Setting plays a big role in ECHOLOCATION. You intimately describe the harsh winters of the northeast. The cold seems to creep into the bones of your characters and make them hard. Were you trying to make a statement about the effects of weather? And has the northeast made you as tough as your characters?
Myf: The kind of cold I grew up with in the North Country and Quebec is its own animal. It is a character in the novel, really. That arctic wind blowing down. 15 below, 20 below, 30 below. The cold that makes the snow squeak when you walk on it. Having to plug your car into a block heater so it will start. It’s the extremeness of it. The danger and harshness of it. And also the beauty of it.
So while I remember the pain of standing outside waiting for the bus as my fingers froze, I also remember the clear sky, the many stars, the Northern Lights.
Yes, I am tough in a way, but I also have a soft heart. I’ve had many challenges to overcome and I’ve not let any of them break me, not for long anyway. Some of the things people complain about make me laugh to myself. I had kids on my school bus who had no indoor plumbing and this was in the 70s and 80s. They always came to school clean and smiling and you never would have known if someone hadn’t told you.
Q: You explore the concept of motherhood throughout the book. Babies are given up, stolen, taken in, adored, fought for, objectified, and cuddled. On page 85 you write that a baby provides one of your characters with a chance at redemption. I know you are now a mother and I assume—based on the timing of the publication and your son’s age—you wrote much of this novel with a baby nearby. How much did becoming a mother influence the creation of this book? Will you talk to us about how your maternal duties and rewards affected your writing?
Myf: When I wrote the first chapter (which was originally the first and second chapter), I thought that I would probably never be able to have a baby. A few months later, I found myself pregnant just a few days shy of my 39th birthday. I finished the first draft of the novel just a few weeks (maybe even days--I can’t remember now) before I gave birth.
So, yes, motherhood had a huge influence on this book. Not just thoughts of becoming a mother, but also in regards to my complex feelings about my own mother. Honestly, I was terrified a lot of my pregnancy because I did not know what to expect. I was also in a lot of emotional distress because being pregnant made me want my mother more than ever, but she had been dead for years by then. I physically ached for her. I felt like a child, an infant. I needed her and she wasn’t there. You become sort of like your own baby when you’re pregnant. It’s interesting. I miss it, actually, though I was miserable throughout most of my pregnancy. I miss feeling the baby moving inside of me.
But, okay, yeah, duties. I can find time to get things done most days now but it’s hard to find the space in my mind to truly focus the way I need to. The place I am in now with my child is that while he is physically growing away from me, he still consumes my thoughts and will for the rest of my life, though as we both age, this consumption will change. Right now it is as if we still share the same body. It is as though, because he is inside my brain, he is still growing inside me. And, in a sense, he is.
Motherhood is a complex and beautiful way of life. I did not know I would take to it as much as I have. When I look at my son I can’t believe that I have had a hand in creating someone so filled with beauty in every way.
This is not to say that there is not drudgery and times when I wish I could be doing something else like writing or sleeping (!!!) instead of playing with cars and trucks, but having a kid has taught me to be a little bit less selfish with my time. One of my goals as a parent is that when I’m on my death bed he will not feel like he has to forgive me for anything. I don’t want him to carry that burden.
As for rewards, I have experienced no more beautiful reward than the love I feel for my son. That love eclipses everything. His love for me is a gift that I cherish and I’m so proud of the fine boy he is. He really cares about people and is not afraid to show it. This morning I woke up with laryngitis at the tail end of a cold and he was so worried about me that he kept coming over to wherever I was and rubbing his face on my leg like a little puppy and asking me if I was okay. There’s nothing better.
Q: The women in your book are strong. In some ways they are scary strong. They know how to survive with little. They often take control of their lives. They have guns. But they also tend to wind up yoked to very bad men. And they don’t often like each other. There are many strained complicated female relationships. These women are loyal, but they are also deeply wounded. No doubt, poverty plays a role, as does a lack of education. Can you tell us what led you to write about such conflicted dualistic women?
Myf: I grew up in the company of women. My mother had six sisters. My father had four sisters. I have three sisters. Most of my cousins were girls. My dad died when I was ten and while my mother quickly remarried, my stepfather was not really the best example of manhood there is. My sisters and I all learned to be strong in our own ways. My mother did not think she was strong, but she was. She had been consistently victimized by men since childhood and yet she never let it fully break her spirit. She would get low sometimes but she always found a way to pull herself back up out of it and reinvent herself. She was also a cancer survivor, having had a mastectomy for breast cancer when I was a small child.
I learned from watching her. I learned what I wanted to be (strong and able to reinvent myself) and didn’t want to be (a victim).
Aside from my family, I have been friends with various women in my life who have epitomized strength to me. From all of these women I’ve known, I pulled together the attributes that make up strength. And, yes, this kind of strength can be exceptionally scary because it is all about protecting that which is beloved.
Q: One interesting technique you employ is the roving third person point of view. Even within the chapters, our perspective shifts. I thought your use was quite effective. Was this a conscious choice? How did you come to use this technique? Did you ever consider telling the story from a single character’s POV?
Myf: When I started writing the book, my idea was to write a novel in stories and so the roving 3rd person was natural in that. However, once I got about ⅓ of the way in, I gave up on that idea and wrote the book how it wanted to be written.
Initially, too, I had another major character. He and his story line are gone from the book now as that was Victoria’s major suggestion in the beginning. He was probably my favorite character which is why I couldn’t see how he was not fitting into the narrative which I kept shoving him into. When I read the book now I see how out of place he was.
I never thought of writing this particular book from one point of view, though I have done with others. This one needed to be the collection of voices. Also, I wanted the reader to be able to see the entire picture (for example, I wanted there to be various different takes on the quarry and what it meant to individual characters) and using the 3rd person was the only way I could make that happen.
Q: Geneva—the hero of the novel—is a beautiful woman, but becomes less desirable in her world once she loses a limb. Later in the novel you write: “She didn’t seem to understand the strength of her difference. That her deformity did not detract from her strength. Rather, it made her superhuman.” You depict Geneva’s lost limb to be a sacrifice of sorts, almost a prerequisite for her independence. Were you trying to make a statement about beauty limiting women? Will you talk about Geneva a bit?
Myf: My mother was one of the most beautiful women I have ever met. As I said above, my mother lost one of her breasts to cancer when I was a young child. A moment I will never forget is when she showed me what her scar looked like. I was terrified and fascinated. She never had her breast reconstructed. People just didn’t really do it back then, I guess. For the rest of her life, 30 more years, she wore a prosthesis in her bra.
So Geneva and Renee are both examples of beautiful women who use and are used for their beauty. Geneva does not use her beauty consciously, but Renee does. Renee thrives on the attention. Geneva would rather the attention go away. And then when it shifts with the loss of her arm, she wants it back.
What she discovers is that she doesn’t need her arm or men to love her. She finds her inner strength. What Geneva becomes is a warrior. An amazon.
Q: You reference Saint Brother Andre and Montreal’s St. Joseph’s Oratory in the novel. Also the word ‘miracle’ is used once or twice, if I remember correctly. A child brings hope on Christmas. Sacrifices are made that invoke Catholic mythology and lend the story a mystical air, which I quite enjoyed. The Catholic Church has always been patriarchal, and yet yours is a story about women. Did you grow up Catholic? How did your religious views (or lack of) color the way you wrote this story?
Myf: I did grow up Catholic and Catholicism is an important character in the world in which this story takes place and in the places I grew up. I was born and raised in Montreal until I was 11 and then we moved to a rural area in upstate New York. Both places had an intensely Catholic influence.
So, yes, I was a Catholic child and I found the stories and the rituals that surround the religion beautiful. I used to take my mother’s missal down from the shelf on quiet afternoons and look through it. The pages were so thin and delicate and the illustrations utterly dramatic and exquisite. The Annunciation! Mon Dieu!
For my First Holy Communion, I received a children’s bible from my god parents. I absolutely loved the book. The stories were outstanding as far as I was concerned. None better. Flawed people engaged in dramatic endeavors. Fantastic. But what I seemed to understand even then is that they were stories. I understood in some immature way that they were allegory, metaphor. I simply enjoyed reading them. Just as I enjoyed how when it was getting close to Easter we would have mimeographed pages of the stations of the cross to color in with crayons in school. I also enjoyed the foxy young priest with his acoustic guitar (this was the 70s, so lots of guitar masses) who would sometimes visit our school.
Now I do not have a religion. I have beliefs and understandings and leanings but not a religion. This is not to say that I disregard people’s faith because I do not. So long as you are not using your faith to hurt, ostracize, or endanger others, I don’t really care what you believe.
As for using religion in this book, I felt I had no choice, though it scared me to do so. Whether I like it or not, it is a part of me and a part of this story. What I worried over in this choice, however, was twofold:
1) I worried that people would think I was some zealot hell bent on proselytizing. I am not and never would.
2) I worried that people would think I was making light of faith or people who believe. I am not and would not.
What my intention was, was to show the world of my characters. This is their world. This is what they believe or not believe. This is how their belief systems have affected their world.
As for Saint Brother Andre, you and I have discussed him and St. Joseph’s Oratory before but I don’t know if I ever gave you the backstory of why he is important to this story (and to me). I never met my maternal grandfather (or paternal grandfather for that matter), but my mother absolutely adored him and told me two stories about him over and over.
The first story she told me was that as he lay dying, she was heavy with pregnancy for me. One day he put his hands on her belly and said, “You will have a blue-eyed girl.” A few weeks later he died and then I was born: a blue-eyed girl.
Okay, now this isn’t really so miraculous. She already had two brown-eyed girls and one blue-eyed girl, so the chance that she might have another were pretty high.
The other story is that during the Great Depression my grandfather was out of work and had mouths to feed. He (like the grandfather in Echolocation) went to the steps of St. Joseph’s Oratory and prayed that he might find work. The next day he was offered a job with Bell Canada or somewhere like that.
Q: Best advice for up-and-coming writers?
Myf: Listen to the feedback that is given you and try not to be defensive. You don’t have to use the feedback, but it behooves you to listen.
Q: Best advice for all writers?
Myf: Keep reading.
Q: What’s next for Myfanwy Collins?
Myf: I’m working hard to finish my thesis in hopes that I will graduate with my MA in English Literature in May. After that, I’m considering looking into some MFA programs locally as I would like to get my MFA in creative writing so that I might teach it.
I’ve got a bunch of readings and talks in support of Echolocation set up for March, April, and May.
I have a collection of short fiction forthcoming from PANK: Little Books in August 2012. I turned the manuscript in last week and I’m super excited about.
I’ve got a manuscript on my hard drive that I am itching to get back to but haven’t had the time to focus on. That’s what I plan on doing when I get some time.
Finally, I want to thank you, Matthew, for this wonderful interview. Speaking of people who are supportive of others, you’re the tops.
Q: The pleasure was mine. Thank you for stopping by the blog. Thank you for ECHOLOCATION. (And you are definitely tops.)
CONTEST: GOOD NEWS! I'm giving away two copies of ECHOLOCATION. To enter, just make a comment below. Winners will be announced here on this blog in a few days.
Purchase ECHOLOCATION here at Engine Books. READ THIS BOOK!