Quill and Quire

Martha Brooks

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The many voices of Martha Brooks

Martha Brooks would be the first to admit that life isn’t always harmonious, but for her, it’s remarkably polyphonous. In fact, there’s a powerful range of voices coming just from Brooks: there are the honest and sympathetic ones of the characters in her young adult fiction, the versatile one she uses for singing jazz, and the quiet, direct one in which she’s talking to me on the phone from her home in Winnipeg.

Martha BrooksAt the time of our conversation, Brooks has just completed the sixth draft of Being with Henry, a novel that grew from a short story, “The Kindness of Strangers,” published in her 1994 collection, Traveling On into the Light. The story is about a 16-year-old named Laker, who leaves home after a violent fight with his stepfather and begins living on the streets and begging. He is befriended by Henry, an octogenarian who takes him home to do yard work in return for some money and a decent meal. The arrangement seems businesslike, but it is rooted in compassion and quickly develops into friendship. As in Brooks’ last novel, the award-winning Bone Dance (1997), the core of the story is about caring and respect.

“Many things in Being with Henry have to do with alienation, and the rage of old age and the rage of youth coming together,” says Brooks. “But the main notion is of life being a journey. You have to trust the journey or you’ll never move or grow.”

Brooks’ writing process is a journey of many stages, as evinced by her novel’s six drafts. The stages involve layering, accumulating levels of story that attach to the main narrative of the novel. But there is also a stripping away of layers, a polishing and clarifying. What starts out grey must attain “the clarity of crystal” before she is done. “My books aren’t action driven,” she explains. “They’re character driven, and I don’t plot. The structure of the novel and character evolves from the exploration of the world that I’m creating. So it’s create and stand back, go back in and explore, brighten it up and stand back outside, try to see what happens next. Then my editors will look at it.”

Brooks’ work undergoes a somewhat unusual editing procedure. She works simultaneously with two editors from different publishing houses: Shelley Tanaka from Groundwood Books (her Canadian publisher), and Melanie Kroupa from DK Ink in the U.S. The three have forged a strong working relationship over the past several years. According to Tanaka, “writing and revision seems to be more of a discovery process for Martha than it is for other writers. She works instinctively; things come to her as she goes. She’s wonderful to work with; not every writer would submit unfinished work to her editors.” Tanaka says that Melanie Kroupa is the primary editor for Brooks’ work, and that she passes her own remarks on to Brooks via Kroupa. Brooks’ description of the editorial relationship places Tanaka a little more centrally. Tanaka provides an overview of the manuscript, and Kroupa worries about the details. It’s like a jazz trio, she says. Tanaka is the bassist, Kroupa the pianist, and Brooks the singer.

The analogy is a natural one for Brooks, who sings in a jazz trio in venues around Winnipeg three or four times a month. “The balance that develops in my life from writing and singing is really healthy,” she explains. “Writing involves so much navel gazing, and singing is so free and out there – especially jazz.”

Brooks is not a night person, so she finds she has to steel herself to stay up for her late-night gigs. Her daily routine is to get up at 7 a.m. for a day of writing. She’s at her desk by 9 and works until 3 p.m., taking only a short lunch break. She gets a lot out of writing, but it also takes a lot out of her. As she describes it, “You spend long, lonely hours with characters who are struggling. In order to write honestly, you have to struggle with them. So there are days when you feel raw and vulnerable. You have to take the journey with the characters, and that’s not always comfortable.” She credits jazz for taking her to a place that’s more comfortable than the one she finds in her writing. She sings a “very straight-ahead” style of jazz, like the kind you hear from Diana Krall and Holly Cole. Her voice has a large range, and a local critic recently described her low notes as coming “straight from Down Under” – a remark that pleases her because she began as a soprano, hitting mostly bird-like notes.

Brooks’ connection to Down Under is soon to be strengthened. She is preparing for a month-long trip to Australia, where she has been invited to speak in Melbourne and in Sydney at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The impetus for the visit is the recent publication there of Bone Dance by Allen & Unwin. The book was acquired by Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, manager of the Australian Centre for Youth Literature at the State University of Victoria, and consultant for Allen & Unwin. “The interesting thing about young adult literature in Australia is that it doesn’t focus on ages 12 and up like it does here,” says Brooks. “The Australian YA audience tends to be older and more sophisticated. That’s why a book like Bone Dance does well there – because I tend to write for an older audience.”

How did she settle on the 17-year-old voice as her niche? “One of the biggest reasons I decided on this was that I really wanted to write about human beings who were on the cusp between young adulthood and adulthood. You’re really up against it at that age because you have to find a way to make a beginning step into the adult world.”

But how does someone with Brooks’ schedule stay in touch with that young voice? She used to teach creative writing in Winnipeg high schools, and in some of her earlier books she acknowledges the influence of her then-teenage daughter, Kirsten, now 26. Brooks stopped teaching in schools a few years ago, but she decided to continue mentoring young writers. Some of Brooks’ students find her on their own; others are set up with her through their schools. One of her former students, 25-year-old Mary-Kate McDonald, published a first novel, Carving My Name, last fall with Thistledown Press. Brooks encourages her students to write out of their joy, but often, she explains, it’s as important for them to write about what brings them pain.

Brooks’ evocation of sadness and loss in her own work is masterful. When I begin to remark on this, she adds – quickly and decisively – that there is also joy and redemption and hope. “Hope is an important ingredient in fiction for young adults.” And yet, she admits that one of the first things that Henry tells Laker in the new novel is, “Life is full of suffering. Suffering is normal.”

“That’s something we all need to know,” says Brooks. “We think that if we can just get to this one place, that it will be all good from there. I’ll be 55 years old in July, and I know from firsthand experience that you never get to that place. But wonderful gifts drop out of the sky, and when they fall at your feet, you need to honour them because that’s what gives you strength. Those moments truly need to be celebrated.”