I started writing Little Yellow House with the intent to document my family’s experience living in an inner neighbourhood with a bad reputation, during a very specific time where changes were afoot driven by housing affordability and revitalization funding from the municipal government. I wanted it to be a kind of “literary collage” where every essay represented a snapshot of the people, issues, humour, strengths and places in my neighbourhood at this unique time in its lifecycle. I hoped that together, the snapshots would reveal a picture that was bigger than me.
I did not often seek out stories to fit into this collection. I wrote stories as they came to me either by experience or by friends telling me a hilarious or sad or made-them-mad thing by the fire over a drink. In writing and structuring this book of creative non-fiction essays in Little Yellow House, I wrestled with a number of questions which I share here and invite your book club to explore too.
- There are a wide variety of stories in the book spanning murder, friendship, sex, thrift shopping and trees... Considering that some deal with really heavy subjects, how can I order the essays so that readers feel more hope than sadness?
- What makes a place “safe”? What makes us feel afraid? How much do other’s perceptions or our own bias impact our reading of safety and danger?
- Why do some neighbourhoods have reputations and how do those reputations serve the needs of the people who hold them?
- What are the circumstances that nurture and grow community in any neighbourhood?
- How do I remain open to the people in need around me? How do I balance this with safe boundaries?
- What makes for a good quality of life in a neighbourhood?
- What makes a good neighbour?
- Communities across North America are facing similar issues of crumbling infrastructure and minimal resources. If my point on page 156 is true and our neighbourhoods have lifecycles that should be respected and nurtured like every step of our human lives, what does this mean for your community?
- What implications do the stories of Alberta Avenue have on public policy— regarding addiction? Derelict properties? Community development? Arts and culture? The sex trade? Education? Will readers be mad I give few answers?
- “Gentrification is the new colonialism” was a note I found stuck to a light standard (pg 155). What do you make of that?
- How do some of the social challenges discussed in these stories impact your own communities? Did any of your views on these challenges change on reading any one character’s story?
- While these questions all have a great weight and seriousness, there is a lot of stuff that happens everyday that is inherently funny to me. How can I use humour to entertain and enlighten, while not undermine the serious challenges in my neighbourhood?
Because a book of essays doesn’t have any final who-done-it or evident climax to draw the reader to the end, I struggled with the structure. How would I keep readers reading? I experimented a lot with order of the chapters. For instance, the last essay “The Pendulum Swings” was at the very beginning of the collection until my last re-write. Initially I felt like it set the context, but I never wanted the book to be blatantly expository or academic. Once I was done all of the essays, I realized I wanted readers to not start with the issue, but start with the story. Do you think I made the right call? If you finished the book, what inspired you? If you didn’t, where and why did you stop? I also felt it was important to end the story with something in my daughter’s voice. People told us we’d move when we had kids, and I think Madi’s essay in “Canvassing 101” is a particularly compelling response to those folks’ fears.
In this book I didn’t want to just tell the stories of my family. I wanted to tell the stories of my neighbours— like Bill and Gillian, or Christy and Darcy— because they had experiences that I just hadn’t encountered but which I felt were powerful examples of the strengths and challenges of my neighbourhood. This presented a technical challenge, however. How do I write the essays that weren’t about me without changing the tone and style of the book too much? My earlier drafts of these chapters were jarringly journalistic. The voice was less personal and I went from a story about my experience living life— really intimate and funny like “Better to Call 311"— to one that was so much more distant from my own lived experience. I returned to those essays like “Unlikely Space Flight” many times to write in sensory and narrative detail that didn’t come initially but which the sources had discussed. How do you feel about the tone and style that I chose to use as both my voice and that of the omniscient narrator? Did it work?
I have very different favourites depending on the occasion, but:
- The stories of Taylor, Danny/Dee, and Gillian/Bill’s are ones that stay with me.
- The most fun one to write was the story of the thrift store (“Smells Like a Deal”), followed by Mat and my sleep misadventures (“Privacy’s Found in the Basement”).
- The quirkiest essay, but one I have strong affinity for because it’s an ode to my winter city, is the one about my battle with the birds (“Predators Invade”).
- “Better to Call 311” gets laughs every time I tell it (so I tell it a lot).
- “A Salmon in a Koi Pond” focuses on the time my mommy blogging got social and it remains an unfinished chapter in my mind. I feel I have much more work to do to understand what that time of life revealed about my personality, about the places where I thrive, about the tools I need to survive.
- My favourite line remains, “Shitty is how you see it.”
- Community Building
- Social Justice
- Urban Development