going off social

This is me, halfway through the first draft of a new novel. It’s time to focus and get to work on building word count, so I need to minimize distractions. Meaning social media.


Quitting social media is a lot like quitting coffee. First, a few days of headaches: How do I remember where that book launch is if I can’t check Twitter? How do I buy tickets for that festival if I’m not in the FB group? What if someone wants me to do a reading and I’m not answering their DM? Then a week or two (or three) of figuring out what else to do for that little pick-me-up between meetings, on transit, during that late-afternoon slump. Then calm.

At first, I shifted my cheap-thrills thirst to other online pleasures, like hunting for a wardrobe on Kijiji or “researching” way too many recipes for kimchi. Luckily, the internet gets boring really fast without the (illusion of) social connection. Then I started to remember some things I liked doing before social media, like writing letters and DIY projects. I picked up a couple of pen-pal relationships I’d let drop in the last few years, and started a new one. I got out my sewing machine and, over several evenings, made a Roman blind for my front window from a beautiful piece of batik I’d had waiting in my basement forever. These activities feel may seem dauntingly Martha Stewart-ish, but it’s amazing how much time there is when you’re not getting sucked into your phone for 45-min periods at a time.

Going off social has also confirmed a strong hunch I had all along (the reason I quit in the first place): solitude is simply not solitude when there’s social media in the room. As a typical introvert, I need solo time to bounce back from the day-to-day human interactions in my life, and I simply wasn’t getting it when “solo time” meant “scrolling Instagram.” In a low-grade way I was feeling chronically depleted and ill-at-ease.

And reading! Oh, my, what a transformation in the experience of reading. When was the last time you read a novel without imagining, somewhere in the back of your brain, how you’ll review it on Goodreads, or where you’ll snap a pic of the cover for IG, or what your shout-out to the author should say on Twitter? Well, I’m here to tell you that reading a novel just for you, in true privacy, is way, way more pleasurable. And you don’t have to not share it: When you’re finished the novel, you can pass it on and sing its virtues to a friend, in person, the next time you see her.

Confessions of a Bystander

An essay/memoir piece I wrote for Salon.com (click image to read):




For a couple of months now I’ve noticed this same card popping up over and over in my tarot readings. It’s not a bad way to begin a new year: a youngling leaving the nest, setting out on a journey into the unknown, trusting to luck. But the Fool can be unsettling card, too. I mean, just look at that cliff.


I looked up the Fool in Sallie Nichols’ book Jung and the Tarot and really liked what I found.

The Fool, archetypally speaking, is something of a shit disturber. He’s a truth-teller, but he doesn’t usually make much rational sense. In fact, disrupting reason is one of his primary functions in literature, especially where reason is being abused by those who seek power (e.g., in King Lear). Nichols points to the flower children of the 60s and the deadheads of the 70s as exemplars of the Fool’s playful-yet-serious anti-establishment impulse.

According to Nichols, literary tradition teaches us three ways to deal properly with the Fool: 1. Admit him at court and seat him at the royal table. In other words, be tolerant but keep a close eye on him. 2. Set aside periods of universal permissiveness and revelry: Saturnalia, Fastnacht, Mardi Gras, Feast of Fools. 3. Freely admit to and laugh at our own foolishness whenever it’s pointed out to us.

What am I supposed to do with this trickster? How do I embrace his playful, deregulating force for myself without letting it devolve me into shambles? Well, music seems to have something to do with it. Dancing, maybe. Certainly laughter.

My friend Rahul informs me that in the Baghavad Gita, Krishna (God) is a player, in several senses of the word. He fools around, he flirts, he flouts conventional morality. He knows that life is ‘leela’ (a play), and we mustn’t become too attached to our roles. It’s all fun and games. This is why Krishna plays the flute.

Hey, I thought, reflecting on all this, it might be fun to make a Fool puppet sometime. Then I remembered that I’d already done that 20 years ago. I dug him out of his box:


best Deadwood quotes


I’m late to the rumour that Deadwood might become a movie. Late, and extremely excited. Watching this show I used to press pause every five minutes to write down my favourite lines. Shakespearean syntax + facedown-in-the-gutter profanity = goosebumps-inducing dialogue. Here are some of the g-rated gems:

Truth is, as a base of operations, you cannot beat a saloon.

Hereforth, in a calamity, I’ll be sure to send for Jane.

Short of burning it all down, you got to trust someone.

I’d as soon as try to touch the moon as take on what a whore’s thinking.

I’m the simple type of man that, seeing lightning, looks for thunder, and finding thunder understands it as part of the same storm.

I don’t collude and I don’t cahoot.

You coulda just said “Amen,” Reverend.

He may have checked out short a useful amount of blood.

You do not want to be a dirt-worshiping heathen from this point forward.

Wild Bill Hickok: You know the sound of thunder, Mrs. Garret?
Alma Garret: Of course.
Wild Bill Hickok: Can you imagine that sound if I asked you to?
Alma Garret: Yes, I can, Mr. Hickok.
Wild Bill Hickok: Your husband and me had this talk, and I told him to head home to avoid a dark result. But I didn’t say it in thunder. Ma’am, listen to the thunder.


PS: The character of Calamity Jane, played by the inimitable Robin Weigert, served as a kind of personal archetype for me a few years back. I wrote about it here.


lesser-known tales: Little Louse and Little Flea

A little louse and a little flea were living together in a house and were brewing beer in an eggshell when the louse fell in and was scalded. Then the flea began to scream as loud as he could, and the little door to the room asked:

‘Why are you screaming, little flea?’

‘Because little louse has been scalded.’

Then the little door began to creak, and a little broom in the corner asked, ‘Why are you creaking, little door?’

‘Why shouldn’t I creak? Little louse has just got scalded. Little flea is weeping.”

‘Well, then I’m going to break my little water jug,’ said the maiden, and as she was breaking it, the little spring from which the water came asked, ‘Maiden, why are you breaking the little water jug?’

‘Why shouldn’t I break it? Little louse has just got scalded. Little flea is weeping. Little door is creaking. Little broom is sweeping. Little cart is racing. Little dung heap is burning. Little tree is shaking.’

‘Goodness gracious!’ said the little spring. ‘Then I’m going to flow,’ and it began to flow so violently that they were all drowned in the water–the maiden, the little tree, the little dung heap, the little cart, the little door, the little flea, and the little louse, every last one of them.

from Zipes, Jack (ed. and trans.) The Complete First Edition, the Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Princeton UP, 2014.

read more lesser-known tales

bookseller for a day

IMG_0163May 2 was Authors for Indies Day here in Toronto, and I had the great honour of visiting 3 different independent bookstores to chat with readers and talk up my favourite titles.

Audrey Niffenegger's THE TIME TRAVELLER'S WIFE was one of my Author Pics for Authors for Indies Day at Book City BWV.
Audrey Niffenegger’s THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE was one of my “desert island reads” at Book City BWV.

First up was my local Book City in Bloor West Village, where I sat at the sidewalk table and attempted to entice passersby with free bookmarks and buttons. The indefatigable Sarah R. had arranged for bakery cookies and lemonade, which made my son very happy when he stopped by to say hello.

She also set up a very pretty display of Mad Miss Mimic up at the counter!IMG_0147

When a passerby did duck into the store, it was either to buy a newspaper or to meet the great Terry Fallis. After a while I narrowed my sales pitch to calling out, “Terry Fallis is inside!”–path of least resistance.

A Novel Spot

Next I popped into A Novel Spot in Etobicoke, a warmly lit oasis tucked into an interior courtyard of Humbertown plaza. I hung out with authors Jennifer Robson and Jane Mullis, signed copies of MMM for owner Sarah P. and chatted with a customer about whether her daughter will be able to find work after finishing her PhD.

After lunch I hit the road, travelling 90 min east to The Avid Reader in Cobourg. And here’s where I finally got down to the business of book selling. Kelly and Julie took the whole “Author Recommendations” thing seriously, stacking my chosen titles at a centre-of-store table and positioning me behind it while they led customers over one by one. “Well?” Kelly said. “Tell people why they should buy The Scorpio Races (my YA pic by Maggie Stiefvater). “And what is Circle of Stones (by Suzanne Alyssa Andrew) all about; it’s been getting great reviews!”

Hawking books for happy customers!

I sold books. I sold several. Possibly a handful, not counting Mad Miss Mimic, of which I also sold a few. It helped that Kelly and Julie had gotten the word out far and wide, and that everyone who came into the store (and there were dozens) was greeted by name. The Avid Reader is evidently a community hotspot in a community that takes its reading habits very seriously.

Three things I learned on Authors for Indies Day about being a bookseller:

1. You have to like people enough to talk to them all day. 2. You have to read everything you want to sell, pretty much. 3. You have to be savvy about business/publicity/survival.

I’m in awe of the amazing bookstore staff I met on May 2, who meet (exceed!) all three of these criteria with good humour and grace.

handmade sign at A Novel Spot
handmade sign at A Novel Spot

Mermaids: Hans Christian Andersen vs. Disney

Disney’s The Little Mermaid came out in 1990, a few years before most of my students were born. They all watched the DVD as tots, and so Hans Christian Andersen’s original 1836 story (on their required reading list) is a shock and, for many, a disappointment. Spunky Ariel, with her sassy seashell bra and her adorable sidekick Flounder, is leagues away from Andersen’s melancholy mermaid.

Hans C. A.’s tales tend toward the emotionally ambiguous. Think bittersweet. (Remember the Little Match Girl? She freezes to death while hallucinating herself in her deceased grandmother’s arms.) His heroines model servility and sacrifice, trading in their earthly woes for the promise of heavenly reward. mermaid

The unnamed little mermaid in Andersen’s story suffers horrific physical pain at her transformation, “as if a two-edged sword went through her delicate body: she fell into a swoon, and lay like one dead.” Every step on land is torture for her, “as if treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives.” In the end the prince marries another girl, and the mermaid dies. Luckily (?) her sisters cut off their hair for the sea witch (more sacrifice!) so that she’ll be permitted to join the “daughters of the air” and be granted an immortal soul after 300 years.

The-Little-Mermaid-BannerWhat Disney does with this twisted, soggy handkerchief of a story is restore a lot of the fairy tale tropes Andersen abandoned. The songs are Disney’s own contribution to the fairy-tale genre, but they fit right in with the oral tradition of the folk tale and its hearthside/market/festival tellings. From Disney we get the traditional talking animal helpers, who bring the skills of the trickster to Ariel’s aid. We get the dramatic power struggle in which the little guys, the nobodies, win out over the rich and powerful. We see a clear boundary between good and evil, and the meting out of justice in the end. And of course we get the happy ending! The wedding! The tearful “I love you, Daddy!” from Ariel.

Disney’s Little Mermaid is every bit as sentimental as Andersen’s version. But in an earthier, more human way–much closer to the way of the old stories.

Mad Miss Mimic giveaway!

henstra_madmiss_otpbHead over to Goodreads and enter the giveaway to win a free copy of Mad Miss Mimic. Hurry, now- the contest closes April 5th!!


lesser-known tales: The Hand With the Knife

But the little girl had an admirer who was an elf and lived in a hill near her mother’s house.Whenever she went by the hill, he would stretch out his hand from the rocky slope and offer her a knife that had miraculous powers and could cut through anything. She used this knife to cut out the peat and would finish her work quickly.

So the brothers crept after her and watched her receive the magic knife. They overtook her and forced her to give it to them. Then they returned to the rocky slope, knocked the way she had always done, and when the good elf reached out his hand, they cut it off with his very own knife. The bloody arm drew back, and since the elf believed that his beloved had betrayed him, he was never seen after that.

from Zipes, Jack (ed. and trans.) The Complete First Edition, the Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Princeton UP, 2014.

lesser-known tales: How Some Children Played at Slaughtering

They chose one boy to play a butcher, another boy was to be a cook, and a third boy was to be a pig…As agreed, the butcher now fell upon the little boy playing the pig, threw him to the ground, and slit his throat open with a knife, while the assistant cook caught the blood in her little bowl.

One of the councilmen, a wise old man, advised the chief judge to take a beautiful red apple in one hand an a Rhenish gold coin in the other. Then he was to call the boy and stretch out his hands to him. If the boy took the apple, he was to be set free. If he took the gold coin, he was to be killed.

from Zipes, Jack (ed. and trans.) The Complete First Edition, the Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Princeton UP, 2014.