Lily Iona MacKenzie's Blog for Writers & Readers


Timing: Giving Birth to a Novel

When I give readings of my last published novel, Freefall: A Divine Comedy, I always spend time explaining that it didn’t come fully formed like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. I’d worked on parts of it for years, but eventually, the narrative solidified and attained its final shape. As is often the case for me, it took a while for the main character’s voice to fully emerge. It’s a little like a partial birth, if there is such a thing. The legs and arms came first. Eventually the rest followed.

Since Freefall’s publication, I’ve been working on a second novel that features a much younger version of Freefall’s main character, Tillie, an aging installation artist. The title of the new novel is Tillie: Portraits of a Canadian Girl in Training, a work that will probably be released in 2020.  Like her older self, the young Tillie is quirky, precocious, and loves to wander.

And why do I have “a Canadian Girl in Training” in the title? This passage from the novel should explain its irony:

Tillie not only didn’t succeed in school, but she also wasn’t flourishing as a Canadian Girl in Training—CGIT. She didn’t do good deeds or take care of the elderly. She didn’t salute the flag or memorize the national anthem or like the Queen that much. All those evenings attending CGIT sessions in the basements of churches—wearing a white middy and navy pleated skirt—did little to improve her. She didn’t give a hoot about Jesus or his wasted life. Nor did making Christmas candles and tree decorations enthuse her.

She did occasionally think about what CGIT was supposed to teach her—being more godly and pure. But she wasn’t interested in its lessons. Being a Canadian Girl in Training had a different meaning to her. It gave Tillie and her friends a chance to be out on the streets at night before and after meetings. All of them girls in training, the uniform was a cover for the more exciting things lurking in their hearts.

Of course, as this passage shows, attending CGIT meetings was an excuse to get out of the house at night. But the real training happened on her way to and from the church where the girls gathered. They smoked all the way there and back. They played white rabbit, a “game” that involved ringing doorbells over and over and then disappearing. They raided gardens. And they also visited the local park where the boys were hanging out. Tillie learns many useful things during those excursions.

And I’ve learned a lot from writing this novel. It can take years for a character and a story to emerge. It’s not unlike raising a child: there are developmental stages, and each one is important. So though at times I despaired that the work would ever cohere, it did. And it was worth waiting for.


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