Author Tags: Fiction, Sports
Arley McNeney played on Canada’s national wheelchair basketball team from 2001 to 2007, winning two World Championships and a bronze medal at the 2004 Paralympics. She is a graduate of the University of Victoria’s Creative Writing program and has completed her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she won two U.S. national championships with the Fighting Illini women's varsity wheelchair basketball team.
At age 24, Arley McNeney published a debut novel, Post (Thistledown, 2007), that follows Nolan Taylor, a retired wheelchair athlete forced to build a new identity in her post-basketball life. The novel was a finalist for the 2007 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, Best First Novel, Canada and the Caribbean
It was followed by The Time We All Went Marching (Goose Lane 2011), a novel that introduces a mother and son who find themselves trapped on a snowbound train heading west. McNeney weaves the situation of the mother and son with the past of a missing father. The novel chiefly explores the On to Ottawa Trek and the Regina Riots of the 1930s, two essential and cathartic events in Canadian labour history, during which the federal government and RCMP responded to the concerns of the unemployed with an iron fist.
According to publicity materials: "Strangely seduced by his yarns of Depression‐era work camps and stories of cross‐country treks that end in violence, Edie followed her husband Slim from mine to mine for a decade, he finding work when and where possible, she caring for their son, Belly, beneath the flimsy shelter of canvas tents. Now, Edie has left Slim behind, leaving him passed out in an unheated apartment on the coldest day of the year. On a snowbound train en route to Vancouver, Edie turns to a mixture of Slim’s stories along with her own memories, both to comfort her son and to make a crucial
decision: should she leave Belly with his grandmother and strike off on her own? Should she return to Slim and his wandering, alcoholic ways? Has she, in fact, killed him by leaving him unconscious in the cold?"
Arley McNeney lives in Vancouver where she works as a communication consultant for wheelchair sports organizations. In 2011 she was also blogging about her recent hip replacement on her blog called Young and Hip.
Post (Thistledown, 2007)
The Time We All Went Marching (Goose Lane 2011) 978-086492-640-1 $19.95
[BCBW 2011] "Fiction"
Q&A with Arley McNeney
Promotional Interview (2011)
SUPPLIED BY GOOSE LANE PUBLISHERS:
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m 28 years old and from New Westminster, BC. Last July, I moved back to British Columbia after doing
my MFA at the University of Illinois, where I also played varsity wheelchair basketball. I was on the Canadian wheelchair basketball national team for six years and won two World Championship gold medals and a Paralympic bronze, though I’ve since retired. I work as a Communications Coordinator for various wheelchair sports organizations. Currently, I live in Vancouver with my cat, Mika.
The Time You All Went Marching is your sophomore novel. Did you feel any extra pressure for you second book?
No, mostly because when I’m writing a book I forget that anyone’s actually going to read it. It wasn’t until I saw the proofs of the cover for The Time We All Went Marching that it really sunk in that the book was going to be something more than a Word document on my computer, and by that time all the hard work had been done and it was too late to feel pressure.
Post seemed to take much from your own life. The Time We All Went Marching is a radical departure in theme, style, and tone. Was this a conscious decision to change your style, or do you feel it is a natural evolution of your talent as an artist?
The funny thing about Post is that nearly everyone assumed it was autobiographical. I got a lot of heat
because people either thought I’d turned them into a character in the book or assumed that I’d actually had a relationship with a much‐older man and were trying to guess who it was. I’ve joked that the reason I wrote a book set in the 1930s and 40s is so that no one could get mad at me. I think, however, that Post and The Time We All Went Marching actually have a lot in common. They both tackle the question of what happens after the “best” years of your life are over. They’re both
interested in the obsessive nature of memory and how a person’s history is manifested on his or her body. That’s a long way of saying that I’m never conscious of having a style. I just write about things that interest me and The Time We All Went Marching came out of that.
The Time We All Went Marching takes place in Canada’s past, including real‐life events such as the On to Ottawa Trek. How did you go about synthesizing factual events within a fictional framework?
I’ve always been a believer that non‐fiction tells “the truth” whereas fiction tells “a truth” and so right
from the beginning I gave up wanting to have precise historical accuracy. The truth of what happened on the On to Ottawa Trek doesn’t make for great fiction, since there wasn’t a lot of nuance coming from any party involved. There’s also been very little scholarly research written on the Trek and most
narratives therefore come either from the Trekkers themselves or their children/grandchildren, which means that the Trekkers are presented as these noble working‐class heroes and the government and police are uniformly evil. In fiction, that’s a one‐way ticket to flat, stock characters.
Actually, what was harder for me was the question of whether to use a memoir my grandmother had written about living in Ymir in the ‘40s in my own work. Earlier drafts had a lot more of my
grandmother’s story in it, but I quickly realized that a) she could tell her own story way better than I could and b) I look up to my grandmother so much that I would never be able to get enough distance on the story to use it in fiction. Knowing when to let fiction take over was a valuable lesson.
What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture?
I think one of the many shifts that are happening with the advent of the Internet and especially social
media is that storytelling is no longer the sole purview of “writers.” Anyone can write a story or post a video and have it reach a mass audience. What’s missing from a lot of the storytelling that’s taking place online is the ability to enter into someone else’s headspace for an extended period of time. Being able to imagine another person’s point of view is such a crucial skill and it’s one that’s on the decline. Obviously, we’re talking about systemic problems that can’t be fixed just by getting kids to read more novels, but I still maintain that we need writers more than ever.
What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The quote that has always guided my writing life is by Adrienne Rich: “The problem is to connect, without hysteria, the pain of anyone’s body with the pain of the body’s world.”
What book had the biggest impact on you? Why?
Timothy Findley’s The Wars. I read it in high school in an AP English class and we had to get permission slips signed to read it because of the sexual content. I’m not sure that I liked it during the first reading—it made me uncomfortable—but I sensed that it was a book that I wasn’t equipped for at the
moment, but that I would grow to love it. Sure enough, it’s stuck with me and I’ve loved it more and more on each read. I’ve probably read the book 15 or 20 times and I’ve even gone through and
highlighted it to try to break it down and see how it works, but it’s never lost its energy for me.
What is the biggest obstacle you have overcome or challenge you have ever faced?
In 2009, I had a hip replacement that ended up not going as planned. I was basically in bed for 8 months and had to have a revision surgery the next year. I’m absolutely terrible at sitting still for long periods of time and hate not being busy, but the forced down time ended up being really good for me.
If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?
Timothy Findley’s The Wars, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion and John Steffler’s The Afterlife of
George Cartwright. When I lived in the States, I was always trying to push those three books onto Americans.
William Faulkner was once asked what book he wished he had written; he chose Moby Dick (with Winnie the Pooh as a close second). Is there a book that you wish you had written?
There are probably 20 books I wish I’d written, but the first time I had the “I wish I’d written that and want to study this whole ‘writing’ thing until I can write a sentence as good as that’ was from The Great Gatsby: “He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight
Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get published?
I’ve worked for a few different publishers/ literary magazines and it seems like 90% of the stuff that crossed my desk is just . . . okay. The person’s taken a few writing classes and knows that they’re supposed to use a hook intro or not have the story end with “and it was all a dream,” but there’s no urgency to the writing, no energy. I think it’s easy to look at literary magazines and think, “Well, if I write about this or that, then I’ll get published,” but I think it’s best to focus first on writing about
something you’re interested in and letting the “getting published” part come later.
Arley McNeney on tour
On Wednesday December 7th, Arley
McNeney sat down to chat with old university friend, and Duncan resident, Katherine Melnyk.
Arley McNeney, I understand your latest novel, The Time We All Went Marching, was inspired by real-life events, can you tell us what events these were?
There’s two … major historical texts that I was drawing on. The first was the On To Ottawa Trek, which is a real life historical event that took place in 1935 that involved, during the great depression, Canada’s response to the unemployment — to create work camps where unemployed men would be sent to; sometimes they did useful work, but a
lot of times they did really menial tasks like moving rocks from one place to another, picking dandelions, building roads that didn’t go anywhere. So after several years of this, … not seeing a woman’s face for months and months and being really disillusioned with how their lives were going to go, they decided to all come down to Vancouver to protest, to ask for living wages, [and] to ask for useful work. And ended up, when their demands
weren’t met, all hopping on box cars, thousands of men, getting on trains, and going to Ottawa to make their demands. Unfortunately the Prime Minister at the time, [and] everyone freaked out and thought that it was a communist uprising and the trek was
brutally suppressed in Regina in what’s known as the Regina Riot —The Market Square Massacre. So that’s the first historical event that I’ve drawn on.
The second is that my Grandma’s lived a very interesting life and when I was
eleven, my family decided to try to get her to write her memoirs, and so without looking at them they just gave them to me to type up and they were pretty racy. So that was sort of burned into my head. It’s not based on her life, but there’s a few sort of incidents that I’m drawing on there.
And then what research did you do to make the book realistic in time and setting?
I did a lot of research. I researched the book for probably a couple of years before I started to write it... researching for fiction is a lot different than researching for non-
fiction because you need to get a general sense of how people talked, what people wore, what people ate. So I spent months just … reading newspapers in the Royal BC Archives, just to get a sense of language, and, you know, how much a cup of soup cost, how much a
dress cost. And then I also, there’s not a ton of research done on the On To Ottawa Trek, but I did read … a couple autobiographies that were written by people who were on the trek and then a few scholarly texts. So I tried to be as comprehensive as I could. And you
know every step of the way involved more research. Even in the final edits I was, for example, trying to spend quite a long time trying to figure out if people in mining camps would have had access to oranges … really strange questions like that that would sort of
throw me for a couple of weeks.
Details that would make it more realistic.
So how did you come up with the idea for this novel?
I started off sort of wanting to write, I’d read a lot of books about World War Two, about people who were soldiers, or were directly impacted by it, and I think it’s interesting that a lot of those texts … assume that everybody was impacted and I was interested in what
happens to people who were on the margins of that. Where there’s this huge event going on that’s … the major story but they’re not a part of it and how does that impact their own ability to tell stories. And I started off really wanting it be … a nice neat concise book and I wrote (and originally the On to Ottawa Trek was not a huge part of it) … 250
pages, and ended up just hating it, it was terrible. So I threw it away. And once I got onto the structure, and the sort of emphasis on memory and stuff then the book, I wrote it in 6 weeks, the book came a lot easier.
And how does The Time We All Went Marching differ from your first novel entitled Post?
Well Post is not historical fiction, and actually when I wrote Post, [which] takes place in the wheelchair basketball community, and it’s fiction, … my life at the time was not exciting at the time to fill 450 pages. So I thought I’d, you know, done a great job of not putting anybody who was real in the book, however when it came out everybody was mad at me because they … thought that I had just based this on my life. So I was joking that I wanted to write something that was historical so that nobody could think that I had
based it on their life. I think that both are concerned with memory, and both are concerned about what happens after the best moment of your life, … what happens after your wheelchair basketball career is over, what happens when you’ve been on this On to Ottawa Trek, this amazing time in history, how do you live … beyond what you see to be
the peak of your life. But I think that they’re both different in terms of tone, in terms of style, in terms of … everything else. It’s very different.
And okay, so your inspiration for Post was your basketball experiences?
I had never seen … any wheelchair basketball novels out there, but I also hadn’t seen disability represented in the way that I sort of understood it. That having grown up in the wheelchair sports community, you know, since I was a teenager, I looked at things in a
different way than most of the books that have characters with a disability in [them] are from able-bodied people. So I wanted to bring that … world to light. And I think I was so young, I think I was 21 when I wrote Post, and maybe 24 when it came out, so I was
drawing on … a world that I understood. ‘Cause I don’t think I was ready yet to make a leap to … an imaginary world.
Okay, since The Time We All Went Marching was released from Goose Lane Editions this Fall, you’ve been on a province-wide reading tour, can you tell us what cities and towns you’ve been to so far on the tour…?
I’ve been so far, the tour started Nov 21st in Fernie, and I’ve been to Fernie, Cranbrook, Salmo, Nakusp, Grand Forks, Osoyoos, Princeton, … And then I was back in Vancouver, and then I read in Duncan, and I’m reading in Nanaimo tonight.
And Nanaimo is your last stop on the tour?
Yeah. … I mean it’s been great, there’s been a lot of really … interesting people who have come out, people who are studying this time period in history, as historians, a woman who’s brother was on the On To Ottawa Trek; lots of people who know a lot about their local history. It was fun for me to bring the book to communities. Salmo is near Wymer [where] a big chunk of the book [takes place] so it was exciting to bring it to people who actually understood that area. It was [also] nerve-wracking because … you
always want to make sure as an outsider you’re getting it right, but yeah it was fun to be able to talk about the local history with people.
And so you’re currently living on the lower mainland? And you’re from the lower mainland originally?
Yep, I’m from New Westminster and I’m currently living in Vancouver.
And where is your family from?
From New Westminster; my grandmother lived in New Westminster, my dad … in
classic New Westminster fashion we go back like three generations. New Westminster’s one of those places where everybody seems to have had long roots there.
And are you working on a third novel?
I am. I’m not very linear in terms of any of my writing process. So I’ve written about 50 to 100 pages of three books and we will see which one sticks. Now that this book is out … it’s time to focus on something new.
And how did you decide to become a writer?
I’ve sort of always been writing. When I was a baby my dad used to read me Macbeth, and some of my first words were the Macbeth “Tomorrow” soliloquy, so I feel like I’ve always been around it. I’ve been writing little stories in notebooks and stuff since I was about three or four. The only other thing I wanted to be was The Phantom in [The]
Phantom of the Opera. So I think this is probably a more lucrative career choice. But yeah, I never really considered being anything else. If I could I probably would, writing is
a hard way to make a living.
Right. Besides writing, how do you usually spend your time?
I work as a communications coordinator for wheelchair sports, so it’s fun. I get to promote wheelchair sports all day. I also coach wheelchair basketball. And I’m passionate about deep-water aerobics; … my new sport of choice, and yeah, hanging out with my cat, Mika.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I think to read a lot. Read and read and read. I think … creative writing courses are very helpful, but just knowing what expert writers have done, you know [what] the masters have done, I think teaches you more about writing than anything … the more reading you
do the more you kind of get the rhythms of good writing in your head.
And how about advice for new authors looking for ways to better market their first book?
Well, I’m not really great at marketing. I think social media provides an opportunity. And talking to writers who have been there, and seeing what works for them, you know, what
challenges … they’ve had. I think it’s tough, marketing books is tough.
And where would someone wanting to find more information on you and your books go?
My press Goose Lane has a website for this most recent book [www.gooselane.com]. You can google me. I don’t have an actual website yet … .
Do you have a blog site?
I have been blogging about my hip replacement on youngandhip.blogspot.com. So that
was … my funny, light-hearted, blog about recovering from a couple of hip replacements.
And is The Time We All Went Marching available as an e-book as well?
Yes, it’s available as an e-book, it’s available in bookstores, it’s available on Amazon, it’s available, it’s making the rounds.
Great, and are you a fan of the e-book?
I think it’s a great way … to put the books in the hands of people who might not normally reach [them]. It’s nice that it’s so instant. … I have a lot of friends in the US and it’s been
great for them to be able to just download the book. I have read some books on e-book, I prefer myself the … print, holding a book in your hand. But I think it’s an opportunity, and I think more and more people are moving towards it and I think it’s great that people can choose.
[Interview conducted on Dec 7th, 2011
By Katherine Melnyk, Book Tailor, Duncan B.C.]