Called compulsively readable, exquisitely rendered, evocative, ambitious, psychologically deft, even audacious - Y: A Novel is Marjorie Celona's first book. It was nominated for the 2012 Giller Prize, enjoyed several weeks on the Maclean's bestseller list, and has garnered widespread acclaim and applause from the critics. Not too shabby.
Y tells the story of Shannon, a newborn baby left outside the YMCA in Victoria, British Columbia. One might be tempted to say abandoned, but the word seems wrong, somehow, upon reading the character of Yula, the troubled young mother who makes the agonising decision to leave Shannon behind. And the critics aren't just blowing smoke. The book is ambitious, exploring complex situations and emotions fearlessly, without relying on clichés, pat explanations or too-perfect coincidences. Nothing is explained away – it just is. Both villains and heroes are few and far between in the story, with Celona opting instead to create a rich cast of flawed, imperfect, multi-dimensional and understandable humans not soon forgotten.
Least forgettable of all is Shannon herself. From the outset, her voice is strong and clear, and her humble acceptance of her lot in life, of finding herself thrust repeatedly into situations too adult for her age, is both painful and inspiring. The interwining stories of the two women see Shannon grow from her inauspicious start, through girlhood and into the beginning of womanhood, while letting Yula's life and backstory unfold alongside.
Throughout the story, Celona writes with little judgment and no flinching, and as a result of the refrain from over-emotional writing, readers are given the space to draw their own conclusions and understand the characters on their own terms, getting to known them an inch at a time as more of each is revealed.
Celona is a 31-year-old author living in Cincinnati, Ohio, but she was born and raised herself in Victoria, on Vancouver Island. In fact, she studied at the University of Victoria and did an internship with the literary magazine The Malahat Review, before moving to the U.S. and earning her MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
When I met Celona, it was at the Victoria launch of Y, which was coupled with the launch of another Victoria book, from UVic's own Bill Gaston, who read from his seventh novel The World. It was an impressive turnout in a large downtown pub, with eager lineups of attendees waiting to have their books signed. Celona was soft-spoken, but held the entire crowd rapt as she read from Y, laughing that she debated at length which passage to read, trying to avoid any references to sex or drugs as her family members were in the audience. She also paused mid-reading to address an audience member who sneezed: "Bless you."
Read on for an interview with Marjorie Celona, author of Y: A Novel .
AbeBooks: Details of the book are so vivid. How much of the book is autobiographical?
Marjorie Celona: Hardly anything, save for the cats and Winkie the dog—those were my childhood pets. (Though the truth is we had five cats, not three. But I thought five cats was sort of unbelievable—that’s the trouble with using autobiographical details, I think: they rarely ring true.)
AbeBooks: Much of the story centers on (protagonist) Shannon’s search for identity and belonging. Is that a theme to which you can relate?
Marjorie Celona: Sure. I’ve always felt like an odd duck, odd-man-out kind of thing. But the search for identity, not so much—I know my roots, where I come from, where my grandparents came from, etc.
AbeBooks: You now live far away from Victoria . Are your breathtaking descriptions of Vancouver Island in part because you miss it?
Marjorie Celona: I miss the ocean, particularly the stretch alongside Dallas Road, more than anything. Now I have to look harder to find beauty: the red cardinal in my backyard; the abandoned buildings of downtown Cincinnati overtaken by vines; the view across the Ohio River to the lush hills of Kentucky. It’s there, sure, but I have to go searching for it.
AbeBooks: What are some of your favourite books, ones you recommend to friends?
Marjorie Celona: Mona Simpson’s Anywhere but Here. The Remains of the Day. In the Skin of a Lion. Bastard out of Carolina. Unlikely Stories Mostly by Alasdair Gray. Anything and everything by Alice Munro.
Unlikely Stories Mostly
by Alasdair Gray
AbeBooks: What books inspired and influenced you in the writing of Y?
Marjorie Celona: I don’t read when I’m writing, but the books I carried around in my head while writing Y were Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and, at risk of sounding like a broken record, everything and anything by Alice Munro.
AbeBooks: What jobs/careers have you held before writing your novel? If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
Marjorie Celona: Like anyone, I’ve worked a million jobs. In my 20s I mostly worked as a receptionist and/or housekeeper. If I weren’t a writer, I’d be a computer programmer who took black-and-white photographs on the side.
AbeBooks: What advice do you have for emerging writers?
Marjorie Celona: Well, if you know you’re good, keep doing it. Do it for ten years and then look up and see if anyone has noticed.
AbeBooks: What do you wish published writers had told you before you started?
Marjorie Celona: That your career will be nothing like theirs—nothing like any other writer’s. It seems to me that each of us has to take a wildly different path to get to where we want to be.
AbeBooks: When you finished writing Y, was there grief at saying goodbye to Shannon and Yula and their stories, at letting go?
Marjorie Celona: Yes. Shannon and Yula feel like old friends whom I’ve lost touch with and feel guilty about doing so. They feel like people I owe a phone call to, but too much time has passed to pick up the phone.
AbeBooks: What are you reading right now?
Marjorie Celona: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje.
AbeBooks: What would a perfect day for you involve?
Marjorie Celona: Wake up, pet the dog, drink coffee, get back in bed, write for a few hours, get up and eat something, write some more, pet the dog, eat again, write some more, notice the sun is going down and that I’ve been writing for eight hours, sit on the porch and drink a beer with my fiancé, look at the stars, look at the fireflies, pet the dog.
AbeBooks: What surrounds you when you work? Pets? Flowers? Neat and tidy, utter chaos?
Marjorie Celona: I write in my bed, the dog either at or on my feet. The room must be clean, yes. Other rooms that I’m not in—and have no intention of going in that day—must be clean as well.
AbeBooks: Do you have any rituals around writing (food you always eat, slippers you always wear, etc.)?
Marjorie Celona: I listen to music until I can’t hear the music anymore, if that makes sense. It’s sort of a white-noise effect. I tried earplugs but I could hear myself breathing, and my heart beating, and it was all too corporeal and strange.
AbeBooks: What are you working on next? With limitless funds and time, what would your dream project be?
Marjorie Celona: Another novel, this time about fathers and sons, and brothers, and a woman who’s in love with a sociopath. With limitless funds and time, I’d do exactly what I described in my “ideal day” above ...but sometimes I’d be on a train.