Three memoirists discuss family, parenting and writing

By Sarah Skrydstrup

While waiting for the panel The Art of Life to begin last Wednesday, the crowd in the Brigantine Room buzzed with anticipation. The audience’s excited chatter was quickly hushed, however, when host and moderator Stuart Woods, editor of Quill & Quire, stepped onstage to do the introductions. Plum Johnson, Lynn Thomson and Priscila Uppal each read from their memoir, then sat down to participate in a fascinating round table about family, parenting and writing. All three of these authors’ memoirs deals with parent-child relationships. The readings and the discussion that followed brought a lot of laughter from both the audience and the participants on stage.

Plum Johnson, founder of KidsCanada Publishing Corp., began by reading a passage from They Left Us Everything, which chronicled a conversation she had with her brothers about their realization that the birth date on their deceased mother’s headstone was wrong. One of Plum’s brothers quietly admitted that the birth date on their father’s headstone was wrong, too!

Lynn Thomson, a bookseller, mother and now author, read an excerpt from her memoir, Birding with Yeats, about a bird-watching excursion to Pelee Island with her teenage son, Yeats. Lynn attempted to properly prepare for the cooler weather by wearing rather embarrassing nylon pants. This aggravated Yeats, causing him to proclaim, exasperated, “Mom! Your pants are too loud!”

Finally, it was Priscila Uppal’s turn. She read from her memoir, Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother, which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. An audience member gasped in shock at the circumstances under which Priscila’s mother left her family: she escaped to Brazil when Priscila’s father was made a quadriplegic after a dangerous accident. The gasp, however, was quickly followed by chuckles when Priscila described how she accidentally stumbled upon her runaway mother’s website and “did what any academic would do, applied for funding” so that she could head to Brazil and seek her out.

When the panel discussion began, the audience was captivated by the three women on stage. They learned much about each woman’s experience. Plum, Lynn and Priscila gave such great insight into life and writing.

Plum shared that “all of us, at some point, will have to sift through what is left, all the things we inherit.” She said that during the writing of her book, she read many memoirs, which she affectionately called “the literary equivalent of reality TV.”

Lynn chimed in, saying, “I couldn’t have written the book without my journals.” When asked about motherhood and what she’d learned about parenting, she highlighted the importance of supporting a child and participating in their interests: “It was the kind of mother I chose to be.”

Priscila was a great participator in the discussion: “I wanted to make sure I was writing the book for the right reasons.” She then reflected on the title of her book and how “people in your life have an idea or projection of who you should be…. People don’t always see us for who we are.”

Spending time with these three accomplished and self-assured women, delving into their lives, was both an enlightening and truly entertaining experience.

Sarah Skrydstrup is currently the Communications Intern at IFOA and is completing her MA in Literatures of Modernity at Ryerson University. She enjoys reading short stories and her favourite novel is Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh.

The Art of Life

By Sarah Skrydstrup

Tonight, three exciting Toronto-based authors will be taking part in a round table discussion about their recent memoirs. Plum Johnson will present They Left Us Everything, Lynn Thomson will introduce Birding with Yeats and Priscila Uppal will bring us Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother. A common theme in each of these memoirs is family. Plum, Lynn and Priscila all explore the good, the bad, the uncomfortable, the happy and the sad of family life and relationships.

Johnson, They Left Us EverythingIn They Left Us Everything, Plum Johnson’s childhood home plays as important a role as any of the actual characters included in her story. It is stuck in the past and brimming with memories. Each outdated newspaper and flyer, all the kitsch and old wallpaper become essential to her understanding of her parents. The book also explores the complicated emotions that come with caring for elderly parents. Plum highlights the importance of reconciling past relationships, and suggests that this can be done through a preservation of one’s family history. You can visit her website for  tips and tricks on preserving your own family history with a memory book.

In Birding with Yeats, Lynn Thomson learns to let go. Throughout her memoir, Lynn reflects on birdingmotherhood, her relationship with her son and finally, her relationship with herself. Lynn’s bird-watching excursions with her son Yeats demonstrate the positive effect that the outdoor world has on their lives. While a lot of her memoir focuses on the mother-son relationship, the other aspect that is significant is Lynn’s job as a bookseller. The month that her husband opened his bookshop, Ben McNally Books, is the same month that Yeats begins high school. These events prove to be life changing for both Lynn and Yeats. As Yeats gets older, he prefers to do things on his own, and this is something that Lynn comes to accept in her book. Letting go of your child can be difficult, but Lynn illustrates that is can also be beautiful.

TA20 Projection Jacket Dundern.inddPriscila Uppal, like Plum, is also a caretaker. Priscila’s mother abandoned her family after her father became a quadriplegic, leaving her to be his sole care provider. Projection focuses on her relationship with her mother and their meeting in Brazil. Priscila candidly shares their unusual relationship, analyzing each of her mother’s words and actions. Priscila’s book also includes several photographs from her meeting with her mother. Each photo is captioned with a very brief description, but as the reader knows, the image is loaded with much more meaning. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Plum, Lynn and Priscila’s experiences and relationships with their families help to shape them into the women they are today. Tonight’s discussion is something that truly shouldn’t be missed. You might come to see your own life (and familial relationships) in a new light.

Sarah Skrydstrup is currently the Communications Intern at IFOA and is completing her MA in Literatures of Modernity at Ryerson University. She enjoys reading short stories and her favourite novel is Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh.

Five Questions with… Lynn Thomson

Lynn Thomson, author of Birding with Yeats and an upcoming IFOA Weekly participant, talks to us about inspiration, influences and great reads!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Lynn on May 28th! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

 IFOA: What inspired you to write about your time birding with Yeats, as opposed to any other time in your life? birding

Lynn Thomson: I wrote about birding with Yeats, rather than any other time in my life, because that’s what the people at House of Anansi commissioned. They thought it was unusual for a teenaged boy to want to spend hours alone in the forest with his mother, and they wondered what the story was behind that. I was confident that people would be interested in this topic because whenever I described one of our birding expeditions to my writing group, they loved it. They wanted more. Of course, the book isn’t only about our bird watching—it also encompasses stories of bookselling, family, how we learn to let go of our children…

IFOA: How has Yeats been with the attention?

Thomson: Yeats is really proud of me. He decided early on that he wasn’t going to be in my limelight, if I have any, so he’s staying in the background. He gets a bit tired of people asking if he’ll sign the book (which he won’t do), but otherwise, he seems okay with it all.

IFOA: What are your favourite or typical places to write?

Thomson: My favourite place to write is at my desk in our “library” on the second floor of the house. My sister gave me her old desk, which is a lovely wooden desk with brass handles on the drawers and a faux leather top. It faces the window with a view of the street and our big mountain ash tree in the front yard.  The room is filled with books.

Lynn ThomsonIFOA: How has bookselling influenced your writing?

Thomson: I’ve always read a great deal. I don’t know that I would have read any differently if I wasn’t a bookseller, but in my job I’m exposed to books I may not have seen otherwise. I think that reading a wide variety of styles and voices, to say nothing of stories, gave me confidence that my story was worth telling. On the other hand, I know very well that there is an awful lot of competition out there and that not everyone’s book is going to succeed. I tried not to let that idea take sway while I worked on the book!

IFOA: What have you read in the past six months that you really loved?

Thomson: There are some really great new books out there right now. I loved Miriam Toews’ book All My Puny Sorrows, Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk and Nadia Bozak’s El Niño. I’d also recommend a very fun, tongue-in-cheek look at lawyers: Bay Street by Philip Slayton.

Lynn Thomson is a bookseller in Toronto. She will present her first book, Birding with Yeats, a touching memoir about a mother, her son and the wonder of the natural world, alongside memoirists Plum Johnson and Priscila Uppal on May 28th.