Marion Agnew is the author of Reverberations: A Daughter’s Meditations on Alzheimer’s, a collection of creative nonfiction essays published by Signature Editions (2019) and shortlisted for the 2020 Louise de Kiriline Lawrence Award for Nonfiction. Marion’s writing has also appeared in The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, Prairie Fire, Full Grown People, Best Canadian Essays 2012 and 2014, and many others. Her essay “All I Can Say” was shortlisted for the 2009 CBC Literary Awards.
Marion and I first connected as fellow writers online, while I was living in Australia and she was living in my hometown. Upon moving back to Canada I made it a first order of business to meet her in person, and over the last handful of years we’ve had the pleasure of sharing coffee and conversation at a country cafe overlooking Lake Superior. The lake features prominently in Reverberations and has been such a big part of both our lives (we both spent childhood summers on its shores and have lived there as adults, as well). I’ve admired Marion’s writing and incredible intellect from day one, so it’s an honour to be able to help share her collection with you.
Reverberations captures portraits of Marion’s personal and family life from childhood to the present, focusing mainly but not exclusively on her mother’s cognitive deterioration due to Alzheimer’s disease. The essays are not presented in chronological order, as one would tell a story; instead, their order reflects the way life’s defining moments, both big and small, fit together like puzzle pieces.
I wanted to pick Marion’s brain about the particulars of her essays and collection as a whole, but I was also interested in learning more about her writing process, productivity, and publishing. No matter what you read or write, you’ll find some words of wisdom here to be gleaned from her experience.
For our interview, we corresponded by email and video chat (and also by good old-fashioned telephone when the Internet died). Click on the video below to watch Marion read a short excerpt from Reverberations, then scroll down to read our interview.
Suzannah: So thankful to have you here, Marion! First, set the scene for us by sketching out a little about your background in writing and editing.
Marion: I have a B.A. with Distinction in English and an M.A. in Technical and Expository Writing. For my M.A. thesis project, I went to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to compile a portfolio, and I stayed as a writer-editor and science education specialist for almost five years. My then-husband and I moved to Colorado, where I eventually landed editing at a publishing company specializing in computer books, both textbooks and how-to books. Since the late 1990s, I’ve freelanced, both editing and writing.
It’s been mostly an accidental career—I thought vaguely of non-teaching work at a university—but technical and science writing turned out to be peculiarly well-suited to my personality and interests. Journalism intimidated me—all that talking to people, asking them hard questions, Woodward and Bernstein stuff? No way. But working with scientists, engineers, and computer scientists to make their work accessible to nonspecialists was just fun.
Suzannah: I’m a terribly slow writer, so I found it encouraging to discover in the acknowledgements section of your book that you worked on this collection on and off for twenty years. Tell us about the book’s evolution: Which story was written first? At what point did you realize you were working toward a creative-nonfiction collection? What is the significance of the final order of the essays?
Marion: Twenty years, yep. For years, like every other working writer, I tried and failed to write fiction, and even nonfiction that wasn’t related to my work. I just didn’t have a story that felt compelling and I didn’t have independent work habits—deadlines drove my productivity.
And then, in the late 1990s, when I was in my late thirties, my mother got sick. I needed to write down what was happening, partly so I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t. Denial runs deep in my family. Also, I was learning a lot about dementia and Alzheimer’s and what my mother’s life might look like as her disease progressed. Writing down what I learned helped me cope. Writing down what I saw when I was with my parents felt really transgressive—a real betrayal of their privacy—but I needed to have that record for myself and for occasional talks with other family members.
Of course I thought of publication; I was a professional writer and editor. So I tried. Before Mom’s death in 2000, I found a couple of writing groups. I got some feedback on what I’d written, but I was still living the story, so the work itself was kind of a mess. I see now that I wanted to write personal essays but didn’t know what they were. I kept trying, though—I even tried weaving my mother’s recollections of her childhood with my own record of her last illness, and had a 300-page hybrid fiction/nonfiction manuscript at one point.
For the last year of her life and a few years after, I put all thoughts of publishing, and writing, away. She died in 2000, and after that my own life changed drastically in four years—that marriage fell apart and I knew I needed to move toward something positive and lasting. So I fulfilled a childhood dream of settling near family property on Lake Superior. My husband, who lived next door, was a bonus.
By 2005, I was in Canada and freelancing full-time, but I also had a filing cabinet full of all these WORDS about STUFF and I couldn’t let go. I thought about some obvious themes around which I might organize smaller pieces. A version of “Home,” what is now “Meander,” came first. Next, I worked on an essay inspired by a poet in Colorado, who’d asked me about Fancy’s funeral, which became “All I Can Say.” After that came “Words.” I sent them to literary journals, and they were received well.
Essay by essay, idea by idea, I groped my way toward a form that meshed my skills and the larger story. Luckily, many writers had stretched and experimented with creative nonfiction during this time, so once I found the labels “creative nonfiction” and “personal essay,” I could learn from reading their work.
I also wrote fiction during this time, practicing scenes and dialogue, and learning to revise my own work. In both fiction and nonfiction, I worked in short forms for a couple of reasons. For one thing, they’re easier to get feedback on than a long work. Also, part of growing as a writer of my own work (vs. writing or editing for others) meant publications and grants, and for me, short pieces were easier to work with and tailor to a grant proposal than a novel or book-length nonfiction.
At last, in about 2016, I recognized that I either needed to commit to these essays or just let go of all the WORDS about STUFF. I approached Susan Olding, an award-winning Canadian writer whose collection Pathologies helped me envision my own collection, about a mentorship. We discussed a bunch of books, both in terms of content and the essay form. She gave feedback on what was and wasn’t working of the essays I’d attempted.
That mentorship broke the dam, and I worked my way through most of the stories from Mom’s illness that I was ready to share.
The final order of essays follows, roughly, the events of her illness. In “Dripsody,” my mother didn’t yet have a diagnosis. Of course, many of the essays traverse the full length of her illness—as a reviewer said, Mom dies again and again. But because the book isn’t strictly chronological, I can consider events from different perspectives, and that also conveys a little of how that time felt. The essays echo a few features of the disease—repeating stories, fragmented experiences, unreliable memory, intense frustrations and elations, changing perceptions.
Because they were first published individually, the essays repeated information, which got tedious when they were in book form. But I felt strongly that I wanted the pieces to remain essays instead of recasting the manuscript as a memoir—I liked the mosaic it made. My editor, Karen Haughian (also the publisher at Signature Editions), suggested places to move and remove the repeated material, so essays are in slightly different forms than when they first appeared. After so long with all these words, I very much appreciated her perspective! To say nothing of her willingness to leave them, essentially, as essays.
Suzannah: What was your path to publication? Did you try to find an agent first, or did you go straight to publishers?
Marion: No agent. And I had some compunctions about publishing a collection at all—for one thing, both of my parents had died more than a decade before I began pitching it to publications, so how relevant was it anyway? And for another, a lot in society has changed since the 1990s (though not nearly as much as we’d like). Publishers are, rightly, choosing work by people with direct lived experience, rather than work by someone adjacent to an experience. I became concerned that in publishing my book, I’d take the place on the bookshelf of someone with dementia, or a care partner, who wants to write about their experience for the world.
But I decided to pursue publishing an essay collection anyway. For one thing, my mother—an oocher, pusher, and prodder from way back—would have wanted me to at least try. Also, my most recent essay, “Hours of Daylight,” had been recognized in a recent Prairie Fire contest and won recognition in the National Magazine Awards, which indicated the work held some relevance today.
I briefly considered publishing it myself, through Shuniah House Books, a publishing company that my husband and I manage together. But I was reluctant to. For one thing, I’m not the most courageous marketer. Praising my husband’s books is one thing; praising my own writing—and especially personal writing at that—is something else again. And besides, I really wanted the experience of working with an outside editor and publisher.
As for the “own voices” question, I eventually decided that I’m not a book market guru. I don’t know what a publisher would and wouldn’t be interested in, to say nothing of readers. So I decided to let the publisher decide about my manuscript. I’ve also become more involved in groups designed by and for people with dementia, in the past year or so. Coronavirus scuppered some of my plans, but I hope in the coming year to hold a workshop or two for people with dementia and their care partners, and to work with the Creative Nonfiction Collective to host a public event where they can share their work.
In terms of the submission process, I started with some information—none of it hopeful, but valuable.
The 2018 annual conference of the Creative Nonfiction Collective included a session at which agents and editors at the major international Canadian houses provided feedback on the first few pages of manuscripts, submitted by those attending. One brave person shared early pages about undergoing tests for early-onset dementia, and the response from the panel was complete silence for an uncomfortable minute. Then one publisher said that the market for medical memoirs was already flooded, and beyond that, publishers “wouldn’t touch a dementia story with a ten-foot pole.” One of the other publishers said that she just hadn’t found the “right story” yet and publishers in general weren’t sure what that story might be.
They also indicated that the memoir form—a long narrative that reads like a first-person novel—is easier to sell than collected short works. And personal essays, which combine memoir with (technical term alert) “thinky bits,” can be even more difficult to sell.
I felt strongly that I didn’t want to recast my personal essays into a long narrative manuscript (again). The interesting part of my work wasn’t the outcome of my mother’s illness, which was a foregone conclusion. Also, everyone’s parents die. Instead, the fractures and insights my family and I gained along the way were the important part.
So at this point I knew not to bother approaching an agent or any of the major publishers in Canada.
My best strategy was then to submit to smaller Canadian publishers. There, too, I had information. The Ontario Arts Council has a Recommender Grant program in which publishers support manuscripts they think are worthy of publication. I’d applied in that program and none of the Ontario participants had supported my collection.
So I went to lists of Canadian literary publishers and started researching. I chose my first ten and went into more depth. Each publisher has different requirements, and most of them wanted me to be familiar with the books they’d already published, which meant reading their recent backlist. Many also ask authors for “comps,” recent comparable titles, from the greater marketplace. Some publishers want one chapter, some want ten pages, some want fifty pages, some want a full synopsis, etc. Over the course of a couple of months, I submitted to ten publishers and waited for the rejections to come in.
I was down to three active applications when Signature Editions (small literary press in Winnipeg) contacted me to offer. After ensuring that they didn’t want me to rewrite my essays as a memoir, I felt that they were a good match. I contacted the other two publishers and happily signed with Signature. And I’ve benefitted so much from their insights and infrastructure.
Suzannah: There are all kinds of interesting connections, symbolism and metaphor in your work. In “Dripsody,” for example, from a leaky roof at your family’s beloved cottage you draw out a fascinating story about your uncle Hugh LeCaine, who was “a pioneer of twentieth-century electronic music,” famous for his composition based on the sound of a single drop of water. In “Nulliparous” you artfully and candidly connect the notion of whether or not one is “doing menopause right” to wildly contrasting opinions on the secret to making the perfect devilled eggs. In terms of writing process, how do you go about making such connections or layering your work to make it richer? Do the connections come first and inspire the writing, or do you discover them organically through the drafting process?
Marion: It varies—sometimes the pieces of an essay find each other almost immediately, and sometimes the theme doesn’t emerge until I “finish” several drafts and receive feedback.
“Dripsody” was fairly quick—the remark by Mom about the drips, plus the symbolism of a leaky roof (which was a real feature of that structure) and her life disappearing, drip by drip—came together in its second version. Similarly, the pieces of “Nulliparous” were all hanging around together in my brain, commenting on each other. That one seems less about my mother than some of the other essays, but it stemmed from my bewilderment at all the times and spaces I still miss her and the life milestones I wish we had together, as well as my ongoing feeling that I’m not “doing it right.” Also, I wrote a lot while menopause kept me awake and crabby.
In contrast, “Atomic Tangerine” was a journey. I wanted to write about something other than my mother, mostly my love of the place we live and the natural world. I spent significant time on drafts that just didn’t work—they lacked life. One of my writer-friends said, “This really wants to be about your mother,” and she was right. (I had to whine a bit before I believed it.) When I remembered the story about Mom’s name, which I’d had to cut from another essay for length, I knew I was onto something satisfying.
Suzannah: Several of your essays are segmented in a variety of ways—with asterisks, Roman numerals, equations, acts, and even the unconventional *0*. The image on the book cover also includes a fading list of subheads from the essay “Let d Be the Distance Between Us.” Is there a reason you’re particularly drawn to structuring your essays this way?
Marion: Somewhere in my mentorship with Susan Olding I became enamoured of braided essays. The form lets you consider several different-yet-related subjects in alternating sections. And you don’t have to write transitions!
Partly, I find that clean breaks, with or without specific dividing characters, help me revise: “Oh, right; this is the section about that.” Partly they’re useful for visually breaking up text on a page, which can help make nonfiction more reader-friendly, in both print and online publications. Partly they keep me from flat-out saying to the reader, “Here’s what I want you to think about that.” Just setting sections near each other, in a particular order, lets the reader draw their own conclusions. And partly it’s kind of how my brain works, I think—in flashes of connection.
I loved having fun with the breaks, too: the *0* for eggs, parts of equations, phrases.
I’m trying to expand my horizons beyond braiding, because nonfiction can be delightful in many forms. Brenda Miller and Susan Paola coined the phrase “hermit crab essay” to describe nonfiction that takes on a form other than the expected prose paragraphs—for example, a recipe, a math problem, a field guide, a course syllabus. Ideally, the form adds to the discussion of the content in some way, like an essay-as-course syllabus might describe a learning experience.
Recently I drafted an essay that really wanted to be braided, and I’m afraid of making braided essays my crutch so I’m resisting working on it. Apparently my inner writer is a toddler.
Suzannah: I found a lot of the dialogue in your essays quite strong. For me, dialogue is difficult to write. It often sounds contrived, and I find myself tending toward writing too much indirect dialogue, which ends up having a distancing effect on the reader. What have you learned over the years about how to write effective dialogue?
Marion: It’s easier to write dialogue when people have actually said the dialogue you’re writing down—not that I’m claiming every word of dialogue in Reverberations is exact transcription. But Mom and I had the conversation with and about her students many times. And I did take verbatim notes while I was visiting my parents, and I wrote scenes soon after the fact, to retain as much of the words and tenor of the encounter as I could. The years of her illness were such an intense time that I had vivid recall of different events for years after, even after I’d written them.
In fiction, it’s harder. I used to assemble characters around a table and let everybody say exactly what I needed them to say, and then I’d wonder why the story felt flat. That’s not really how conversations work. People speak around a topic. They don’t answer questions. They change the subject. They ignore the barb behind the words, or they find a barb that wasn’t intentional. They don’t talk using words—they communicate by turning away or staring. Or they stay silent on purpose and that says more than dialogue or indirect speech. Knowing the characters seems to be key—but it’s a skill I’m working on, still.
Suzannah: In addition to creative nonfiction, you’ve also published short fiction. Is your writing process in these two genres similar or different? If there are writers reading this who write exclusively in one genre or the other, what benefits would you highlight to encourage writers to explore the other?
Marion: For me, the writing process for both is similar in that I get obsessed with an idea (for example, why are names so important in our culture? Or what if a character decides to walk to the mall, who IS he and what’s THAT about?) and live with that for a while. I write bits and pieces while I figure out what’s happening (the “why?” is important). That mulling continues through a few early drafts, while I’m learning the story, tightening the connections among ideas, or finding that key point.
But the revision process is different for fiction and nonfiction. In nonfiction, I’m stuck with what happened. I’d say “for better or worse,” but it’s definitely for better. In fact, I lean into the ways in which what really happened wasn’t what I WISH had happened. Real life is uncomfortable. Even moments of connection and calm can be short-lived. Imperfection and discomfort give readers permission to be imperfect in their own lives.
With a short story (or my novel that’s been on the go for a dozen years), I keep forgetting that anything is possible. I find myself reading along going, “Yep, here’s where she goes outside,” without considering that maybe it’s where she throws a plate instead. I cling to branches of plot that don’t serve the story anymore, because they’re familiar. That’s why I’m looking forward to this summer, when I hope to take another pass through my novel with fresh eyes.
So, adhering to “what happened” in nonfiction could perhaps apply to plotting in fiction—try to make plots more uncomfortable. I’ve had fun practicing dialogue in fiction, and for examining where scenes can begin or end, which is also helpful for nonfiction.
Suzannah: Most of us are still trying to navigate life during the coronavirus pandemic. In what ways have your writing and reading life, process and promotion been affected by what’s going on in the world? Do you have any advice for writers who may be struggling at the moment?
Marion: I was set to present a panel and celebrate my book at the Creative Nonfiction Collective annual conference in early May, and that opportunity disappeared. But I’ve been very impressed and encouraged by the quick pivoting in the creative community to online everything: launches, readings, and other celebrations.
As for coping—well, we’re fortunate. Roy (my husband) and I have more than a decade of experience living in the country, just the two of us. We still worry about family, but overall, we’re secure.
Like most people, I’ve had trouble focusing since lockdown. So I go back to basics: routines, deadlines, lists. Short bursts (the 25-minute “Pomodoro” technique) help me get through daunting projects.
I have to be careful between projects. I can’t rely on what I “feel like” doing or what “has to” be done, because so much has changed and deadlines have evaporated. Currently, Roy and I are revising his spec-fic novel (Iterations of Caroline, about the multiverse) for publication this summer by Shuniah House Books, our publishing company. I keep a list of tasks so that when I finish one (a chapter-by-chapter summary), I know what my next task is (draft back cover copy).
I also work on a variety of small tasks during the day, instead of doing just one thing all day. More boxes to check!
Overall, I’d suggest that people do what they can, where and when they can. Write about the pandemic, or don’t, but maybe people could consider keeping a calendar or just hanging on to their to-do lists—it’s an interesting time.
Suzannah: Any new projects in the works or publications on the horizon? Where can we read more of your writing?
Nothing new, sadly. Since March 2019, when Signature Editions contracted my essay collection, I’ve been working mostly on revisions or publicity for that, plus another draft of my first novel. I’ve enjoyed taking a year or so off of submitting short work.
As long as I’m editing and packaging Roy’s novel, I don’t have much space in my head for my own. I’ve dusted off short pieces and early drafts, both fiction and nonfiction, and I’m revising those and submitting them. It’s possible to do in short bursts. And as Roy’s novel moves through the process, I’ll go back to my own novel—I’ve received good feedback and am one revision away from submitting it. Or so I hope!
Suzannah: Thanks so much, Marion, for taking the time to share all these insights with us. Readers, you can learn more about Marion and find her full list of publications at www.marionagnew.ca. You can also read her essay “Bypass Instructions” and blog post “The Story Behind Bypass Instructions” at Compose, the literary journal I founded in 2012.