This is Jane Christmas. Jane writes memoirs. Her newest book, Open House – A Life in Thirty-Two Moves, had a quiet yet important release yesterday (March 24, 2020). Jane lives in England with the love of her life and their dog.
I met Jane just over twenty years ago (we were five-years old…I kid. I kid.) She came to Windsor to promote her new book, which at the time was The Pelee Project (her first memoir). I had the opportunity to interview her in her hotel room. I was nervous. She was (is) big-time. A journalist, a mother, strong and independent, Jane was everything I wanted to be when I grew up. Our first conversation began that fateful day and has continued over the years. We’ve stayed connected as each of our writing lives have blossomed. It’s been an honour skipping alongside Jane’s incredible successes, and every once in a while, getting close enough for a tea and a hug!
Open House – A Life in Thirty-Two Moves is Jane’s fifth memoir. At the end of our Q&A, you’ll see a list with links to all her books so you can buy and read each one! As a memoirist, Jane is the real deal. Her quick wit, vulnerable reflections, and open-hearted sharing about her real-life experiences sets her apart. Reading her books is like being in the room with her – sipping tea (or wine), laughing, crying, debating, listening, loving with her. Though she jokes about never writing another memoir after each memoir is published, it’s clear that one of her writing gifts is to ‘write what you know’. This is a line of advice that moves in and out of our writing lives like the scent of each new season on the wind.
Spring is springing – and with it, the publishing world has released Jane’s newest memoir. The cover makes me smile. (You too?)
Here’s what her new book is about:
“My attitude toward houses is the same as it is toward books: you can never have too many. To prove it, I’ve moved 32 times. Those who have been to England know what a delicious smorgasbord of homes the country offers … until an overcooked housing market ruins the appetite. We viewed 60 homes in a stonking-hot market in 2017, and when house-hunting fatigue hit us, we surrendered to a Victorian terrace house that was overpriced, in need of a total renovation, and that we didn’t even like. As we glumly hunkered down to the task of fixing it up, my mind began churning over all my past homes; the ones I grew up in and the ones I owned, and it got me thinking about where this addiction to homes and to moving began. This memoir isn’t so much about renovating a house as it is about what happens when we run from our past and try to renovate it; how events that occur during the course of our lives can make us uncomfortable settlers, forever craving to restore something we lost long ago.”
(FYI – Stonking is a British term used to emphasize something that’s vast, impressive, over-the-top.)
I can tell you that our email interview is stonking. Let’s begin, shall we?
VS: Congratulations on your brand-spankin’-new book: Open House – A Life in Thirty-Two Moves (Harper Collins, 2020). Your big release day was March 24th! How are you feeling about having another book enter the world? (This is your sixth, correct?)
JC: Why, thank you Vanessa! It’s a pretty surreal experience this time around. It’s my first “dry” book launch (“dry” in the sense that there were no people around except my husband and our dog to celebrate it … and neither are particularly fond of Riesling.) This is such a weird, eerie, frightening time with COVID-19 swirling across the planet. I hope your family is well and safe, and that goes for anyone who is reading this. Takes something like this for us to appreciate our good fortune, to remind ourselves of our priorities. Like everyone else, I’m constantly checking in with my kids and friends to make sure that they’re safe, and that they are following government protocols and restrictions. In the scheme of things, the release of a new book is pretty low on the totem pole, except for the fact that it might act as a helpful distraction to the house-bound. Oh, I just realised something: a book about houses being read by people who are house-bound! What great timing, eh?
VS: Because we’re living through an unprecedented time of self-isolation right now, I’ll ask you one question in relation to this strange time: how is your creative process affected by this phenomenon?
JC: I hope this does not sound callous, but I am loving this time of silence and consumer enforced suspension. The fact that the entire planet has effectively shut down, that the hype about “what you need to buy now” or the latest celeb gossip, it’s kind of created a level playing field for once. We are all in this together, and none of us is immune to this virus. So on one hand the silence and peace has actually calmed my creative process. On the other hand, I am not sure it’s benefited from it. I’m working on a new manuscript and for the first time EVER I became stalled within minutes of opening it up. I don’t know whether I’ve lost interest in it, or whether my head is too focused on the state of the planet, or what, but I am stalled. No worries. I’ll try again tomorrow or another day.
All to say that disturbances in the Universe do affect my writing.
I’ve had weird dreams lately, and poor sleep, and both those factors do not serve any work well.
VS: When did you get the idea for ‘Open House’? Do you remember your ‘pitch’ to your agent/publisher when you wanted to start writing?
JC: I did not do a pitch. I started writing Open House on January 1, 2018 and gave myself six months, a lot less time than I normally spend writing a book. I love houses so the topic is always in my head, and the writing came naturally. My agent read the manuscript, liked it, lowered it into the publishing pond and two publishers bit. One was HarperCollins’ imprint, Patrick Crean Editions. Patrick loved the story, and he wooed me with his enthusiasm. He had recently worked with Esi Edugyan’s on her award-winning Washington Black, so I was pretty chuffed that someone of Patrick’s calibre was keen on my work.
VS: Did you always want to write non-fiction/memoir books? Tell us about how you’ve become immersed in this genre.
JC: Memoir was not my first choice, but it was the most natural choice.
I began writing slightly humorous first-person stories for the newspapers I worked for, and people responded well to them.
When I wrote the series of columns on Pelee Island for the National Post it was a mercenary act. I was truly exhausted from the hectic life in Toronto and I needed to get away before I had a breakdown. But I also needed the dough, and I didn’t want to burn my journalism bridges, hence the offer to chronicle my lifestyle sabbatical. Once the columns were published and were well-received, a good friend asked when the book version was going to come out. I thought he was mad. I had no intention to write a book, nor did I have the faintest idea how to write one. But he was adamant that there was a book in those columns, and he created a proposal package that, bless him, he sent around to publishers. That’s how I got my first book contract. After that, the other memoirs followed easily. To be honest, I can’t see myself writing another memoir. Then again, I say that after each one that I write!
VS: What other writing projects are working on? Do you read the genre you’re writing? (If you’re working on memoir, do you read other memoirs?)
JC: There are two questions here, so I will tackle first the second question. I love reading memoirs. I love the form, and I love reading other people’s stories.
That’s the inherent attraction to memoir: peering into another person’s life and learning from another’s perspective about navigating aspects of life with which you might be struggling. Memoirs are about insight and resilience, and they are educational as well as inspiring.
I also read other genres, mainly fiction, especially historical fiction, because I’m writing a work of historical fiction right now. Reading various genres helps my writing because I pick up ideas on how to articulate those thoughts I am struggling to explain. An author once told me that she was working on a book and reading like mad. And I thought, ‘Why are you reading when you’re writing?’ And then I got it.
You just learn so much from reading widely, and you get a deeper sense of expression that informs your work. Poetry, fiction, biography, memoir. Everything offers a chance to learn to be human, and to improve your skill as a writer.
I’m currently working on a novel—historical fiction. I’ve been writing and shaping and refining and editing it for about 6 years. If I’m not working on that, I work on some other writing—another novel, an essay. I’m also helping a few friends write the story of their rapes to help them process the trauma and see themselves more as the victor than the victim of that damaging experience.
VS: Tell us about your creative posse – that is, those folks (living or passed) who give your daily encouragement and inspiration.
JC: Gosh, I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t have a creative posse. I’m a pretty isolated writer. I’m in touch with you, Vanessa, and we have inspired one another and bitched to one another about the business and life in general, but in terms of a writing buddy, I don’t have one. I am very shy about my writing, an odd confession from one who writes memoir. The only person who reads my writing before publication is my agent. I really want to expand that aspect of my writing though—I want a posse!!—but at the same time I feel guilty about intruding on someone’s valuable time to say, ‘Hey, read my work!’ Still, I must work on pulling together a literary posse.
VS: What is a day-in-the-life of Jane Christmas the writer like?
JC: Haha! Stand by to be bored! I’m awakened at 6 or 6:30 by our Yorkie Pluto who wanders over to my side of the bed and launches himself against the mattress for his morning stretch. I used to wake up at 5 or 5:30 to write, but now we have a dog, and my writing routine has changed. By 6:45 Pluto and I are out the door for a walk. During this period of self-isolation we are allowed out for exercise once a day so I truly value that morning walk. We’re home by 7:15, I get Pluto his breakfast, and I make mine. I take a quick look at emails, listen to the news, make tea, and then I write till noon. After lunch, I check emails again or FaceTime with my kids or friends. After that, it’s back to writing or reading. At 4:30, I close my laptop and join my husband for a chat, a read of the paper, or as is the case lately catching up on TV updates concerning the virus. After the 6pm news, I cook dinner, we watch TV or read. By 10:30 or 11 I’m in bed and I fall asleep quickly.
There are a few volunteer gigs I do throughout the week, which sadly have been suspended due to the virus: On Mondays, I mentor a woman who is learning to read. She’s about my age (mid 60s), and it is hard to imagine one going through life and raising kids without learning how to read. But she is making great progress. On Thursdays, I do a shift at a local charity shop in the morning, and take a Pilates class in the afternoon. I also bake squares each week for our local pub’s Sunday roast dinner, the proceeds of which go to a hospice.
My baking is strictly Canadian—I do Nanaimo bars and butter tart squares—because no one here in the UK has heard of either delicacies.
My butter tart squares have earned the name “The Erection Special” after some guy said they were so delicious he actually became aroused. It’s an image I would have preferred not to have in my head.
VS: Do you enjoy having a book launch/tour? How do you feel about this part of the writing life – getting ‘out’, doing readings/events, and meeting fans?
JC: My book tour for Open House was cancelled/postponed due to the pandemic. It’s hoped some of these can be rescheduled for October. It feels weird not to do the dog-and-pony show, but it is also a blessing. I’m not comfortable with self-promotion. It’s an exposure I do not welcome, which sounds strange coming from a memoirist. But many writers feel the same. We’d all like to be Elena Ferrante and have our books come out and sell like gangbusters without us having to do one interview!
While I am uneasy with book tours, I recognise the obligation to get out there and stand up in public and read my work. It’s a sort of creative accountability. An assertion of authorship. It is fun to meet fans and engage with readers; it delivers a lovely buzz.
I’ve had some really kind letters and emails from them. It takes courage and time to write to an author whose book you liked or didn’t like, and I honour that by responding to each one. There are authors who don’t write back to fans because they say they’re too busy. How arrogant! How hard is it to write, “Thanks so much for taking the time and effort to write to me. Glad you enjoyed my work and that you felt moved to tell me so.” The bonus of some of these interactions with fans is that a few of them have become lovely friends. How cool is that?
VS: What book(s) are you currently reading that you’d like to suggest we read as well?
JC: I have been on a reading binge for the last few months. We’re not quite three months into the year and I’ve read about two dozen books. Off the top of my head the memorable ones are: Little, by Edward Carey; We Are Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler; Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout; The Year of the Monkey, by Patti Smith; Albatross by Terry Fallis; and Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford.
VS: Are you a member of a writer’s group or book club?
JC: I’m too self-conscious to join a writer’s group, and I have not yet found a sympatico book club that suits my schedule and temperament.
VS: Writers are always asking other writers about ‘advice’ – do you think it’s a good thing to ask for advice? Why or why not?
JC: Do you mean asking advice from other writers about something you’re working on? I see no reason not to ask. But it wouldn’t be something I’d do. I’m very conscious about sucking up someone’s time. But I do get asked for advice and I am happy to offer anything I can.
VS: Do you have an agent? Do you think it’s a good idea to try and get an agent?
JC: These days, I’m not sure many writers can reach publishers without an agent. It’s a shame. Many literary agencies operate like doctor’s offices—rosters of hundreds of clients and scant individual attention. You’re just one in the herd. You certainly don’t get the sort of career-building guidance and plotting that you are led to believe you’ll receive when you sign with an agent. That level of attention kicks in only when you are super successful—when you least require it. It’s very frustrating. I apologise for sounding cynical, but there you are.
VS: Is there a place in the world you’d love to go to and write? Have you been there yet? If you have, tell us about it. If not, what is your writing goal when you get there?
JC: Several years ago I was in San Gimignano, Italy. I saw a hotel and immediately thought, “This is exactly the place I would love to write.” It’s still a desire.
VS: Why do you write? A big, deep question!!
JC: It’s part therapy, part desire to be heard. I was ignored growing up, or rather what I had to say was never heard. And so I developed a distinct lack of comfort with self- expression: I either withdrew into silence or I yelled and swore. There was no in-between. My parents chided me for being either over-emotional or mousy and dull. There were many contradictory messages during my childhood.
Memoir writing has been a way for me to process my past and to understand myself, to make peace with who I am. And it’s given me a bit of a platform where I can be heard now.
I actually wrote Incontinent on the Continent as a way to get my mother to listen to me without talking over me and swatting away my ideas. She read it and wanted to sue me, so not exactly the outcome I wanted. When I wrote And Then There Were Nuns, I really wanted her to read it as a way to atone for some of the bitterness in Incontinent. By then, I had a better understanding of the psychology of my parents, and I wanted her to be aware of that. I offered to let her read the manuscript but she said she’d wait until the book came out. She died before it did.
VS: Who is the one person you always want to read your books? (Alive or not!)
JC: There are three people – my kids. The hope is that if they read my work they will glean something about their own history and psychological makeup. I would have loved my dad to read my books but he died before I became a published author.
VS: Finally, what is your favourite curse word?
JC: I’m trying hard not to curse any more. It’s not attractive, especially at my age. My husband does not use profanity; neither did my father. When I became acquainted with nuns and lived in convents during my discernment for religious life it was a relief to discover that many nuns and priests swear. People who possess little patience or whose self-expression has been stifled fall naturally into swearing. I try to exercise self-control, but if something or someone gets up in my grill, the word that bursts from my lips is, “Fuck!”
Thank you, Jane, for your humour, honesty and wisdom! I have to agree with ‘Fuck’ being a really powerful curse word. It’s efficient, at least for me. Though I try to only swear when my kids aren’t around. That’s a whole other conversation!
In any case, readers, I’m sure you’re excited to purchase all of Jane’s books, so here are the links I promised you! (Please note, the links I’ve provided are only options. It is the perfect time to order these books through local bookstores and/or request them from your local libraries. Supporting writers means supporting bookstores and libraries! If your library doesn’t have the book you want, simply request it, and they will get it. This also puts money back into the writer’s pocket via the Public Lending Right. Thank you!)
To follow Jane’s amazing book and writing life, be sure to go to her personal website: www.janechristmas.ca
Stay tuned for book tour updates. Jane hopes to be in our neck of the woods on Pelee Island in the fall! And don’t forget to connect with Jane via Goodreads or love letter. Like she said, she’ll write you back!
Thank you Jane! Can’t wait to read your new book!