Interview with Author Beverly Akerman

Interviewed by Nate Hendley

Beverly Akerman is the author of an award-winning new book called The Meaning of Children.

What motivates you to write? Is it the promise of money, fame, power, recognition, self-fulfillment or something else?

Oh, fame and power, absolutely, lol! How did you know? No, really, I write because I just feel these stories inside that simply have to be told. Don’t forget, I came to writing recently after working for 20 years in science. So I think I must have been holding in a lot of feelings for a very long time (though no one in my family will believe I’ve ever held in much of anything, feeling-wise, I’m sure!).

Much of my work stems from personal experience, even though it’s fiction (my kids laugh when I say that, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). For instance, when I write about young Anglo lovers afraid of speaking english at Saint-Jean Baptiste Day celebrations [in Quebec] in the early ‘70s, that’s a piece of history that people should know, but may not. I write to conjure up my grandparents (“Tumbalalaika”), remember a foster sister who we were sure was abused by her father (“Sea of Tranquillity”), to honour a friend who might have questioned his daughter’s paternity (“Paternity”) but did not, in actuality. One of my favourite stories in this collection, “The Woman with Deadly Hands,” I wrote in answer to the question “can one ever read too much?” No one would know that’s the meaning of the story, but it is, at least to me (I only figured this out well after I’d written it). Stories are like Rorschach tests: there are certainly major themes and issues that move most readers, but there are always things people can assign their own meanings to. That’s the beauty of art.

Do you have any “tricks of the trade” that help you kick-start the creative process?

You know, I like to be moved by something. If it doesn’t make me feel like laughing or crying, it’s not really what I want to write fiction about. When my kids were young, my mom would take us all to storytelling and plays put on at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal. It was done in the round, and just the sight of all the kids, paying such rapt attention … I found that so moving, it made me cry. I want my readers to feel that way when I show them something. The other big thing, I’ve found, is to unsettle myself. Travelling does that. I’m not a big traveller, so when I go to a writing conference, it really puts me on a sort of emergency footing. That peels my nerve endings back a bit, makes me more open and vulnerable. So I would recommend getting out of your comfort zone sometimes. And writing about what really moves you.

In your opinion, is talent overrated? Does society put too much emphasis on skill and not enough on will?

No, I don’t actually think talent is over-rated. I think youth—particularly young male writers are over-rated. I used to think that was maybe just because I’m a middle-aged woman, but the recent work by Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) and their American sisters at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts who have massively documented the systematic ignoration—hmm, is that a real word?—of women writers in the literary press have proved to me that it’s not just sour grapes. The gender imbalance in reviewing the work of women writers is a shocking shame. I’m sure it’s one of the reasons my book did not get its due: a woman writing about children? “Bleah.” Even though it’s about so much more than children, I’m sure that may well have diminished its appeal. At The National Post, for example, nearly 70 percent of the literary reviewers were male and nearly 80 percent of the books reviewed were by men in the period surveyed. It was worse at The Walrus and almost as bad at The Globe & Mail. Of course, now that the book pages are being torn from the papers, it won’t matter quite as much, will it?

Can you tell me a little bit about your book, The Meaning of Children?

Reviews of the book have been highly favourable; my work has been compared to Alice Munro’s and Grace Paley’s. One reader recently compared it to Jonathan Safran Foer’s work, too.

My stories capture pivotal underappreciated moments in the world of girls and women, in childhood, adolescence, parenthood, or life as a whole. Disparate decades and narrative voices woven together by themes of sex, death, and social prejudice. And love, always love … a girl discovers a fear of heights as her parents’ marriage unravels; a thirty-something venture fund manager frets over his daughter’s paternity; an orphan whose hands kill whatever they touch is accused of homophobia; a suicidal daycare worker has a very bad day; a mother of two can only bear to consider abortion in the second person; the wife of a retirement-aged professor finds him unconscious near his computer … The Meaning of Children speaks to all who—though aware the world can be a very dark place—can’t help but long for redemption. Women particularly love this book; I call it intelligent fiction with a beating heart.

Many of my stories are available free online; you can find the links on my website.

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Biography

After over two decades in molecular genetics research, Beverly Akerman realized she’d been learning more and more about less and less. Skittish at the prospect of knowing everything about nothing, she turned, for solace, to writing—and has been winning accolades for her prose ever since. Last year, she was shortlisted for Aesthetica Magazine‘s (UK) 2011 Creative Works Competition, won the Professional Writers Association of Canada’s Short Article Award and an honourable mention for their Feature Award. Other honours include a fellowship to the Fishtrap writers conference in Wallowa Lake, OR, Pushcart Prize nominations in fiction and nonfiction and multiple submissions for the National Magazine Awards.

Her work has appeared in anthologies, in over 20 literary journals as well as in newspapers, magazines, on CBC Radio One, and in numerous academic science journals. It pleases her to believe she’s the only Canadian fiction writer ever to have sequenced her own DNA.

Her blog is located at http://beverlyakerman.blogspot.ca/

The Meaning of Children is available at Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle.

Look for her on Facebook & Twitter, too!

(Nate Hendley is the Toronto-based author of Motivate to Create: A Guide for Writers, available in paperback and on Kindle. He has also written several other works, primarily in the true-crime genre.)

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