Monday, January 15, 2018

Emily Ursuliak on Suzette Mayr

During the summer of 2010 I had almost finished college and was starting to think about grad school. Rod Schumacher, my first writing mentor, had suggested that this was the logical next step and that I ought to read books by writers I was interested in working with to help guide my applications. I created a reading list and began working my through my stack of books. I didn’t come to Suzette Mayr’s work until I was on a camping trip in the badlands with my family. I had found a copy of her novel Moon Honey and I started digging into it lying on a bunk in my parents’ trailer. Many of the books in that stack I read through dutifully, and while I recognized that they were written with a level of skill that far exceeded mine, I just didn’t connect with them. Mayr’s novel was different. The opening of Moon Honey has stuck with me long after reading it. We are introduced to a young couple, Carmen and Griffin, and are told about the time they had sex under a pool table. During the act, Carmen accidentally smacks her head against the leg of the pool table and the brief description of this moment is so visceral, we feel what it’s like to be in her body, her skull throbbing from the recent impact. There is something so true about this opening moment: the awkwardness and discomfort of first sexual experiences, and the bizarre humour of these weird moments in our lives.

I was supposed to be reading my book pile searching for someone who could help me address the weaknesses in my own work, and right there, in the first scene of Moon Honey, I saw one of the strengths of Mayr’s work and what was lacking in my own. My characters were floating heads, spewing thoughts but not giving the reader any physical sense of what it was like to be in their bodies. In Moon Honey I noticed how fully embodied Mayr’s characters were, how she dug deeper into them, was able to describe their physicality as well as their thoughts, and used this strength to delve into challenging issues around race. I remember devouring the book over that weekend camping trip and feeling in my gut that this was the person I needed to study under. Thankfully, when I got into the one program I applied for, Mayr agreed to be my supervisor.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the toxicity of creative writing programs in universities. I feel fortunate that I was able to get through my program relatively unscathed, but it was definitely a very tumultuous time for me, and through the two years I was in the program, Suzette was a grounding, stabilizing force. She was able to balance supporting me, while also giving me the rigorous critique my work needed. I felt as though I could be incredibly honest with her during the process of working on my thesis. One time I told her I was worried about my productivity, that I had been binge-watching a bunch of weird French movies on Netflix. Her response: “Maybe watching these weird French films is part of your creative process. Believe me, if you’re not getting enough work done, I’ll be the first to let you know.” I can’t think of any other professor that I would have ever admitted binge-watching Netflix to. Often her critiques were laced with wit and humour. I remember one time she pinned a note to a chapter I’d submitted, chastising me for using too many ellipses. It went something like this: “Why . . . are . . . there . . . so . . . many . . . ellipses . . . in . . . this . . . section? It . . . makes . . . it . . . painful . . . to . . . read . . .” and it continued on that way for quite a bit. I snorted with laughter reading this feedback, and since then I have always been very cautious with ellipses. During my time studying under Suzette I felt like I could trust her entirely, and that even while she was warm and supportive, she was also challenging and pushing me to dig deeper into my process.

I still look up to Suzette and I think I’ve come to admire her in entirely new ways after leaving grad school. When I came to Calgary I did not have much experience with any kind of a writing community. Frankly, I was pretty naive about what being part of a writing community meant and threw myself wholeheartedly into every interaction. I’ve found that different writers value different things. Some writers are very attached to accolades and prizes and take every opportunity they can to boast about their accomplishments. Suzette’s work is certainly highly regarded. Her novel Monoceros earned her a place on the 2011 Giller longlist and won her the ReLit Award and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize, to name a few recognitions her work has received. But Suzette is the last person you’ll find going on about any of these prizes. She’s always struck me as someone who is driven solely by the work itself. I remember talking with her about what ended up becoming her recent novel, Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall. The ideas she mentioned were compelling, but she was still very much in the progress of wrangling the book and shaping it into what it would become. I dove into that novel this fall, revelling in the way she can make you squirm with uneasiness on one page, and laugh on the other. And I thought about the value of blocking out the tacky glitter of prize culture, of focusing in instead on the work of writing for the sake of writing. I hope that I can one day cultivate the sincere, grounded focus Suzette Mayr has for her work.

Emily Ursuliak is a fiction writer and poet living and working in Calgary, Alberta. She hosts and produces the literary radio show Writer’s Block for CJSW 90.9 fm. She has recently published her first book of poetry, Throwing the Diamond Hitch, with University of Calgary Press. You can find out more about her at

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