Interview with Claire Gem

interviewpixI’m chatting with Claire Gem about my writing process and latest release, A Different Kind of Reunion.

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On Writing Memoir

Yesterday evening, I attended a memoir workshop facilitated by Writer-In-Residence Camilla Gibb at the Kitchener Public Library. The author of four novels and a memoir (This is Happy), Camilla has a PhD in social anthropology from Oxford University. She teaches creative writing at the University of Guelph-Humber, University of Toronto, and Humber School for Writers.

Camilla started by suggesting the sub-title of this workshop could easily be “At Your Peril.” For over an hour, she shared well-crafted anecdotes, insights, and advice about the memoir writing process. A short Q & A period followed.

Here are several nuggets that captured my interest:

• Present trends in memoir writing include alcoholism, opioid addiction, cancer, degenerative diseases, Alzheimer’s, death of aging parents.

• To determine the plot, ask yourself what is compelling you to write this memoir now. What needs to be answered? Examples: How did I find myself here (addict, single mother, broke, cancer patient)? Why does my mother appear saner now that she has Alzheimer’s?

• Once you have the question, you will be able to decide which memories belong and which do not.

• Access the answers to your question through research. Read widely—fiction and nonfiction—about the subject that has captured your interest. Read as a writer not as a reader.

• If you don’t know the question, list your most compelling memories in chronological order. Then, search for the thread that links the past and present.

• Voice is the most critical component of memoir. Our lives are much more than the chronological rendering of facts.

• Think of yourself as a character. Examine the broader forces—class, gender, ethnicity, geography—that have shaped you. Consider changing the name of the character and then give her your biography. Do you see yourself differently?

• We get attached to certain narratives in our lives. The truth is underneath the stories we tell ourselves.

• Memoirists engage in the editing of their lives for narrative effect. Examples: Cutting back on repetition, leaving out uneventful periods, and making omissions for the sake of self-preservation.

• When writing memoirs, we will inevitably trespass into the lives of others. We need to be careful not to include anything that betrays the spirit of a contract (employment, marital). Also, we must not share anything that could result in the loss of income or reputation for people in our circles. These could be grounds for legal injunction.

• Big publishers have in-house legal counsel. If self-publishing, hire a libel author to go through the memoir.

Memoirs Mentioned

The Liars’ Club by Mary Carr
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer
Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Life Lessons from Maeve Binchy

On Wednesdays, I share posts, fables, songs, poems, quotations, TEDx Talks, cartoons, and books that have inspired and motivated me on my writing journey. I hope these posts will give writers, artists, and other creatives a mid-week boost.

When I attended my first critique group, one of the writers commented: “Your stories remind me of Maeve Binchy’s books. Have you read them?”

Read them!?

I have devoured the sixteen novels and four collections of short stories written during her lifetime. I’m especially fond of Book #17, A Week in Winter, released six months after her untimely death in 2012.

Like many of her fans, I mourn the fact that there will not be another Maeve Binchy novel. I will also miss Maeve’s wonderful advice.

Here are my favorite life lessons from Maeve Binchy:

Be supportive

Maeve was blessed with parents who thought “all their geese were swans.” As an overweight child who did not excel athletically, Maeve appreciated the warmth and positive feedback she received. Later, she met and married Gordon Snell, a writer who also believed that Maeve could do anything.

In her novels, Maeve extended this positive reinforcement to her characters. She once explained: “I don’t have ugly ducklings turning into swans in my stories. I have ugly ducklings turning into confident ducks.”

Accept all gifts

In the early 1960s, Maeve worked in a Jewish school in Dublin where she taught French to Lithuanian children. At the end of the academic year, the parents gave her a trip to Israel as a present. At the time, Maeve had no spending money, but she went on the trip anyway and worked in a kibbutz—plucking chickens and picking oranges.

To reassure her parents, she regularly describing her adventures. Impressed with her writing, her father cut off the “Dear Daddy” bits and sent the letters to The Irish Times. Equally impressed, the editor published her letters as travel articles and later hired her as a columnist.


When Maeve began writing stories and novels, she was still working as a journalist. She woke up each day at five-thirty and worked for three hours at the typewriter before going to work. To motivate herself on those dark mornings, she started to visualize the launch party for her first book. She imagined large crowds of people gathering and paying her compliments.

After several rejections, her first novel (Light a Penny Candle ) was accepted, but the publisher had no intention of hosting a launch party. Maeve didn’t miss a beat. She spent two hundred pounds, one-fifth of her advance, and organized her own party in a room over a pub, complete with wine and crisps. She invited family, friends, booksellers, and the publisher “who cringed with the shame of it all.” In the end, it was such a good experience that Maeve sat down and wrote another book.


Success is not a pie where everyone who gets a slice has somehow diminished what’s left for everyone else. Maeve believed that success was “more like a cairn, a heap of stones where the more each person gets, the more it adds to the general body of work out there.” She urged aspiring writers to “borrow” the techniques of successful writers and present them in their own unique voices.

And, most important of all, keep at it.

Plotter, Pantser or …?

Hundreds of books and articles have been written about the writing process. While it’s worthwhile to read some of this literature, it’s important not to become overwhelmed by all the information and advice.

When I first started my writing practice, I assumed I would be a plotter. After all, I was a left-brainer who had spent thirty-one years teaching mathematics and business education courses to adolescents. I focused on the articles devoted to plotting and attended workshops that featured authors who extolled that particular method.

Continue reading on the Mysteristas blog.

Idea → Sticky Idea → Premise

Writers can find inspiration almost anywhere, and they don’t have to go too far to find those ideas. Checking Twitter or Facebook feeds, reading a daily newspaper, watching a television program, visiting an art gallery, eavesdropping on conversations…

Which ideas work best?

Sticky ideas…those ideas that simply won’t go away.

Once that idea takes root, it’s like a song that you can’t get out of your head. You wake up thinking about it, dream about it, and fantasize about it. You can even imagine the A-list actors who will star in the screenplay based on your novel. You may seek validation from family and friends: “Don’t you think that would make a great novel?” Unfortunately, too many ideas remain fantasies and don’t make it to the next step: transforming an idea into a premise.

Continue reading on the Sisterhood of Suspense blog.

A Writer’s Life

Yesterday evening, I returned to the Guelph Public Library (Westminster Square Branch) to lead a discussion on the creative life with a lively group of writers and wannabe writers, who braved the cold, blustery temperatures. I shared my experiences and advice on finding inspiration, establishing daily rituals, dealing with writer’s block, and getting published.

I was impressed by the depth and breadth of questions and comments. The group was a diverse one with interests in writing poetry, fiction, memoirs, and self-help books.

Thanks to librarians Karen Cafarella and Deb Quaile for organizing and facilitating this event.

L-R: Erin El Masry, Joanne Guidoccio, Deb Quaile, Karen Cafarella

On Success and Failure

On Wednesdays, I share posts, fables, songs, poems, quotations, TEDx Talks, cartoons, and books that have inspired and motivated me on my writing journey. I hope these posts will give writers, artists, and other creatives a mid-week boost.

Whenever I need a strong dose of reality, I listen to the following TED Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert. The best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love (Over 11 million copies were sold), Elizabeth was catapulted into instant success. But there is life after success, and sometimes it takes the form of failure. In this entertaining Talk, Elizabeth shares her brushes with success and failure.