How a Painting and a Piano Inspired Me to Pay Attention

This post was originally published on The Drake‘s blog, April 27, 2016.

Painting in my hotel room at the Drake Devonshire

As a writer, details are important. So, I was beside myself when I realized that a landscape painting hanging in my hotel room suddenly revealed a great white shark, its jaw wide open, sharp white teeth exposed. I had glanced at the painting several times throughout the day. How had I missed the shark? What else had I been missing by not paying attention? I decided to retrace my steps and walked through the Drake Devonshire again, this time determined to pay greater attention. I sat at the bar fighting any urges to get up and do something. Why did I constantly feel a self-imposed pressure to stay busy? Then, I realized the longer I stayed in one place, the more I noticed: the scent of lemons and limes combined with dishwasher detergent lingering in the air, the squeak of chairs on wooden floors behind me.

I stepped outside. The lake was sparkling with the sun’s rays directly over it. I closed my eyes. Again, I fought the urge to move on and tried to stay in the moment. I heard rushing water, the wind, voices. Nearby, on the lawn, was a piano. After being left outside and exposed to every season, it looked like a ghost. I read the inscription: Piano Listening to Itself. I close my eyes. Again, I heard the stream. The wind. Then, I remembered a promise I had made once-upon-a-time to an old friend, now lost to me.

“Piano Listening to Itself”

I met Cathy while we were undergrads at the University of Toronto. I was the type of student who sat at the front of the class, but she insisted that the back was the best place to be: “It’s the only way you’ll see everyone and everything.” Before long, I found myself in the last row of all my Sociology classes. Together we survived long hours of lectures. Cathy had a keen eye for fashion and would make it a point to observe the quirkiest details about how some of our professors dressed. She especially hated white socks with black shoes and threw invisible darts at anyone who committed this fashion faux pas.

We celebrated our twentieth birthday over ten cent wings and cheap beer at the Sticky Wicket, a pub on Spadina Avenue across from the university. Cathy joked that we would celebrate our thirtieth birthday in better fashion, in a gourmet French restaurant, and for our fortieth birthday, after she had travelled the world and I had written a bestseller, we would celebrate by sipping real champagne in Paris, France, under the glittering night lights of the Eiffel Tower.

In the summer of 2008, Cathy and I took our much anticipated trip to Europe in celebration of our fortieth birthday. Our trip didn’t begin without a few glitches. We were in the air already when the pilot announced that one of the engines wasn’t working, and so Cathy and I would have to sit in darkness for the entire six hours that it would take us to get to London. While the other half of the plane enjoyed TV and movies-on-demand, Cathy and I couldn’t even turn our overhead lights on to see what Air Canada was feeding us for dinner.

But Cathy, her spirit undaunted, thought that our descent into darkness was the perfect opportunity to discuss and plan how we would celebrate our fiftieth birthdays. She thought Africa sounded intriguing. The woman in the next aisle agreed that it was an excellent idea and suggested a Kenyan safari. She told us that safari meant ‘long journey’ in Swahili – which would be fitting for two old friends celebrating their fiftieth birthday. The gentleman in front of us suggested the Egyptian pyramids but to avoid it during the summer months because it got terribly hot.  By the time we got to Heathrow Airport, Cathy had befriended half the plane in spite of the fact that she couldn’t see any of them in the darkness!

London was cold and wet. But Cathy didn’t notice the rain. Everything, from Buckingham Palace to the ‘look left’ and ‘look right’ signs painted on the streets, delighted her. However, when we finally got to Paris, her initial reaction to the Eiffel Tower was: “That’s it?”, which made us laugh like school girls. One of my favourite memories was toasting our friendship, drinking champagne as we looked upon a glittering blue Eiffel Tower sparkling against the night sky. I can still hear Cathy’s voice saying, “Isn’t life amazing?”

That night Cathy and I had some of our most random conversations ever. At one point, she turned to me and said, “You’re the English major: what does it mean exactly to ‘kick the bucket?’” I was impressed by the long list of euphuisms she knew to describe dying. Then she asked me what I wanted to be remembered for after I died. “A writer, of course,” I told her. I wanted to be known for my thousand bestselling novels. When I asked her what she wanted, she simply stated, “I’d want people to remember me as a happy person.”

A few months after our trip Cathy grew ill, and after a short and brutal battle with a rare cancer, she passed away. She had been my best friend for over twenty years. During one of our final conversations, as she lay in her hospital bed, she expressed her deep regret at not being around to see my first novel be published one day. “Promise me,” she said, “that when you get your big chance, you’ll remember to sit at the back of the class. That way, you’ll see everything. Just remember to pay attention so you can appreciate it.”

Pay attention. By the time I drove away from the Drake Devonshire, I was convinced the place was a poem, a song, art itself. It demanded time and tranquillity to appreciate everything it had to offer. Guests, if we allowed it, could step into magical places like the Glass Room where apple-green and pink elephant-shaped chairs greeted us and old pianos played lost tunes, but only if we stopped to listen.

The Great Genevieve Graham

I had the pleasure of moderating the Enemies, Allies and Antiquities: From Versailles to Acadia panel with historical fiction authors Roberta Rich, Sally Christie and Genevieve Graham at Toronto Public Library’s Appel SalonGenevieve was kind enough to provide responses to several questions I asked, and has given me permission to share them!

Genevieve graduated from the University of Toronto in 1986 with a Bachelor of Music in Performance (she played the oboe) and began writing in 2007. She is passionate about breathing life back into history through tales of romance and adventure, and loves the particular challenge of capturing Canadian history. Her previous novel, Tides of Honour, was a Globe and Mail bestseller for eight weeks. When she isn’t writing, she can be found relaxing with her husband and two grown daughters, teaching piano to children in the community, or tending her garden along with a friendly flock of heritage chickens. She lives in a tiny town near Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Why do you believe your historical novels are so popular with modern readers? How do you make your historical subject accessible to readers?

So many people to thank …

subwayI thought writing a novel was difficult. Since the publication of Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety in spring of 2016, I’ve discovered selling books and getting them out into the world is even harder. And, there are so many more people involved!

I wrote but did not share my writing with others for years. Then I took a Creative Writing class and shared stories with my instructors and classmates. I can’t begin to express how important this proved to be. I not only learned to be a better writer, but the networking led to the publishing of my debut novel and opportunities to speak and read at different conferences and events including the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) in Los Angeles.

Also born out of my Creative Writing classes was my writing circle, the 11th Floor Writers. Since 2007, it is my core critique group and writing support. We hold each other accountable and provide opportunities to collaborate and provide constructive, meaningful feedback of our work.

When I signed with my publisher, my writing world expanded to include members from editorial, marketing, publicity, and sales teams. I’ve been tremendously fortunate to work with an outstanding team. I adore my editor, Phyllis Bruce, and everyone at Simon & Schuster Canada. Jackie, my agent, not only helped me navigate through a 17-page contract, but she is my sounding board and go-to person for everything from book ideas to questions I have about the industry.

Thanks to my publishing team and agent, I was invited to some of Canada’s biggest literary festivals and events this year. There, I got to connect with not only readers but fellow writers. I asked them questions about their writing lives and the writing process which proved to be invaluable information for a debut author.

I’ve also been fortunate to meet with some wonderful booksellers. What a pleasure to chat and share conversations with them! Book critics and everyone who reviewed and wrote about me and the novel helped promote its visibility, for which I’m grateful. I had the chance to be interviewed on radio, TV, and in person at several events including ones held through the public libraries. All these opportunities were wonderful places to connect and share with readers.

Readers. It all comes back to them. I am deeply appreciative that people have taken the time to read my novel. Connecting with them either in person or via social media has been a wonderful and immensely gratifying experience.

Finally, I remain grateful to my family and friends who keep me grounded because it has been quite the roller coaster ride so far! I’m especially thankful to my awesome daughter, Claire, the one person I wanted most to share stories with.

Read more:

Quill & Quire: Debut authors know what it takes to write a book, but then what?


Do writers need business cards?


Do writers need business cards? I’ve found them to be a great way to connect with others, especially potential readers. Using business cards is certainly more professional than scribbling my name, book title, and email address on a piece of paper. Even in today’s digital world, having a paper card has come in handy, especially to spark conversations. My card has the cover design of my novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety on one side (a quick way to market the novel!) and my contact/social media info on the other. I can’t take any credit for it – my publisher created the design and provided me with a box full of cards.

Some author business cards I’ve seen included QR codes. Others had colour photos of the authors. A quick search online showed conflicting views on what should or should not be on a card. Some sites recommended including a short bio or book blurbs, while others stated that doing so would make a writer seem unprofessional.

One thing everyone seems to agree on though is that business cards continue to be a valuable marketing tool. I’ve exchanged or given out cards at book signings and readings, author visits to schools, conferences, and at any social event where I’m meeting others for the first time. They’re also great to have when I run into old friends or people who express an interest in getting to know me and my work better. I’m sincere when I tell people I’d love for them to drop me an email and say hello.

Read more:

Writer Business Cards: 5 Ways To Think Outside The Box
PrimeTime: What Kind of Business Cards Should Writers Have?
Marketing 101 for Freelance Writers #6: What You Need Up Your Sleeve
Create an Author Business Card
Writers – What Should Your Business Card Say?
A 13-Point Checklist for Writing Business Cards

Blank Spaces – a new Canadian literary magazine

Blank Spaces, Volume 1, Issue 1

Blank Spaces, Volume 1, Issue 1

I met Michelle McLaughlin at Word On The Street in Toronto, and was delighted when she wrote to me. She and Alanna Rusnak had seen me speak at the Humber School for Writers Workshop: Overcoming the Odds: Long Journey to Publication. In turn, they introduced me to Blank Spaces, a new Canadian literary magazine, where Michelle is an assistant editor and Alanna is an editor and publisher. Both women are also talented writers. According to Blank Spaces’ website, their mission is “to celebrate and champion the work of Canadian creatives, bringing exposure and support to artists across our great country.”

I love the feel and energy of the magazine! December’s edition (issue 2) includes the stunning photography of Aidan and Leanne Hennebry from Hush Hush Photography. Their photos of New York taken from a helicopter are breathtakingly beautiful. There are also many entertaining and engaging articles, essays, and poems, including the winning story from issue 1’s writing prompt challenge. The deadline to enter the next challenge is January 10, 2017.

Blank Spaces is a quarterly publication with new issues released in September, December, March and June. According to their submission guidelines, they are looking for:

  • flash fiction – short fiction – any topic, any genre (under 1000 words)
  • more than word – photo essay
  • food of love – fiction or nonfiction about music
  • different strokes – art feature
  • make art not war – DIY feature, creative living
  • story matters – the craft of writing
  • red solo cup – smaller pieces to fill the gaps. Poetry, micro-fiction, etc – be creative
  • shameless – creative non-fiction. Personal essay that delves into your own truth and experiences
  • fiction feature – longer fiction – any topic, any genre (up to 3500 words)
  • between the lines author/artist spotlight (not open for submissions but contributors may be approached for an interview)

Complete submission guidelines are available on their website. Magazine copies, print and digital, can be ordered online. You can also connect with them on Twitter and Facebook.


Dark Side by John Choi

Dark Side by John Choi

Dark Side by John Choi

It’s kind of crazy that both my brother and I published our first books this year. Like me, John took Creative Writing classes at the University of Toronto’s School for Continuing Studies. We even studied with some of the same instructors like Dennis Bock. The networking opportunities that came with being in our classes eventually led us to get our books published.

According to the National Reading Campaign’s review of Dark Side, the Young Adult (YA) novel “grips readers with its intensity, packing each page with relatable teen issues.”  Emerson, the protagonist in Dark Side, is overwhelmed with family pressures and parental expectations.  John, who works at Nexus Youth Services, explores themes that include domestic violence and teen suicide.

I really enjoyed reading the book because it spoke to so many issues and concerns that today’s teens deal with. As a teacher, I can see how young readers would connect with the characters and the challenges they face. John ends the book with an author’s note encouraging readers to seek help if they are feeling in any way overwhelmed by school or issues related to family and friends. Dark Side is available in bookstores and on Amazon. It was released by Lorimer Books, a Canadian publishing company, in August 2016.


So you wanna learn Korean?

Integrated Korean by Young-Mee Cho et al

Integrated Korean by Young-Mee Cho et al

A few people have asked about Korean language resources. It always delights me to hear from non-Koreans interested in learning the language. I’m surprised at how popular Korean food has become and where I live – northern Toronto – there’s lots of Korean restaurants, including Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu, Joons, and The Owl of Minerva. K-pop and K-dramas have also become very popular. Several people in my Korean class wanted to learn the language so they could read song lyrics and watch TV shows and movies without relying on subtitles.

The textbook my Korean teacher recommended for our beginner-level class was Integrated Korean: Second Edition by Young-Mee Cho, Hyo Sang Lee, Carol Schulz, Ho-min Sohn, and Sung-Ock Sohn (University of Hawaii Press, 2010).

There are also many wonderful online resources. Youtube videos are especially helpful because you can hear how words and phrases should be pronounced.

Top 25 Must-Know Korean Phrases

Learn the Korean Alphabet Fast

Introduction to Perfect Korean Pronunciation

Korean Polly Lingual (excellent place to start!)

9 Tips for Learning Korean