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Lynn Thomson

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Flying lessons

Longtime bookseller Lynn Thomson becomes a first-time author with her memoir, Birding with Yeats

Lynn Thomson (photo: Patrick Estebar)

Lynn Thomson (photo: Patrick Estebar)

Lynn Thomson’s Birding with Yeats straddles a handful of genres, leaving booksellers with options about where to shelve the title. A memoir that delves deeply into both birdwatching and child-rearing, Thomson’s intimate reminiscence could comfortably sit alongside biography, nature, or parenting titles.

Thomson has thoughts on how best to reach potential audiences. As someone who has been a book retailer off and on for nearly 30 years (she is married to Toronto bookseller Ben McNally and works two days a week at their Bay Street bookstore), Thomson will determine her book’s shelf profile in at least one small corner of the retail universe.

“People who come in looking for biography tend to be interested in big personalities, so I would rather see it in ‘nature’ than in ‘biography,’” says Thomson, sitting in the kitchen of the Toronto home she shares with McNally.

Birding with Yeats, published by House of Anansi Press, documents how Thomson and her then teenage son, Yeats, bonded through a shared interest in birdwatching. For the mother, the ornithological pastime created opportunities to spend time outdoors, a habit cultivated since childhood. For the son, it suited a propensity for focusing intensely on subjects of interest to him. Few activities lend themselves more naturally to the categorizing and cataloguing impulse than birdwatching.

The hobby also opened up a line of communication between Thomson and Yeats, a laconic teen with little interest in fielding inquiries about his academic or social life.

“We have a completely different relationship when we’re out in the forest,” says Thomson. “Everything stops. We don’t talk about homework or anything else. In fact, we don’t talk very much at all.”

Anansi president and publisher Sarah MacLachlan learned about the mother-and-son expeditions while chatting with Thomson at a 2010 book launch. MacLachlan instructed Anansi senior editor Janie Yoon to approach Thomson about the prospect of writing a memoir.

“I remember thinking it would be a fabulous book idea and that Birding with Yeats would be a fabulous title,” says MacLachlan.

Though Thomson had never been published before, she has kept a journal since the age of 15 and was part of a weekly writing group for more than a decade.

“In that first second after Janie asked me to do it,” Thomson recalls, “I thought, ‘This is my opportunity. Why wouldn’t I take it?’ It was a lot of hard work, but I don’t regret a second of it.”

First, Thomson needed to persuade Yeats and Ben to sign off on appearing in the story. In addition to detailed descriptions of birds spotted on Pelee Island, in Muskoka, on trips to B.C., and elsewhere, the narrative wrestles with the occasional frustrations of dealing with an uncommunicative son and workaholic husband.

“They were on board with it right from the start,” Thomson says. “Yeats was excited at the thought of presenting to the world these trips of ours, with all the birds, and sharing his love and excitement. And Ben gave me full licence. He said, ‘Say anything about me that you want.’”

Yeats and his father also fact-checked the final version, with Yeats sometimes setting the record straight on which birds were seen where. The elder McNally helped nail down the details of a 2010 family trip to the Galapagos Islands, which ended in shipwreck when their tour boat ran into a reef, requiring the rescue of all 16 passengers on board.

While writing the book, Thomson sustained a debilitating shoulder injury from a fall at the family’s Muskoka cottage, which set the project back a year. It wasn’t until Mac­Lachlan showed up at Ben McNally Books in January with an advance reading copy of Birding with Yeats that Thomson allowed herself to believe the book would finally be published.

“I started to cry because I never really thought that it would happen. It finally hit me that there is actually going to be a book,” she says.

MacLachlan praises Thomson’s debut, saying, “It’s even better than I anticipated. It’s got a lot of really valuable life lessons in it, without being heavy-handed.”

Now comes the hard part. Thomson admits to dreading “the whole publicity thing” (this interview is her first as an author), while recognizing it as a necessary part of the promotional process.

Then there’s the book business itself. Wherever her book ends up being slotted in stores, Thomson is acutely aware of how quickly those shelves are disappearing. She even tried, unsuccessfully, to press Anansi into delaying the ebook release of Birding with Yeats to give the paper edition a head start.

“I understand Anansi’s position,” says Thomson, who doesn’t own an e-reader herself. “There’s a place for the devices. Even friends of mine admit that they use them when they travel.

“But quite a few of our customers also tell us that they’ve tried reading on those devices and they’re giving them up, so I’m still optimistic about the paper book. It’s a really tough business, but we just hang on.”

From the May 2014 print edition