Submitted Author Joanna Lilley during the reading of her book Worry Stones at McNally Robinson bookstore in Saskatoon on Oct. 24.

A story 17 years in the making

Whitehorse writer Joanna Lilley launches her debut novel

Try, try again isn’t usually the right approach when submitting a novel to a publisher. If you’re rejected, you usually try, try with someone else. But that’s not how it worked for Whitehorse writer Joanna Lilley.

“(Ronsdale Press) rejected it,” Lilley said of her first novel, Worry Stones. “But they sent me a really encouraging letter.”

In that letter, the company official told her what they liked and disliked. Lilley took the tips, re-worked the novel, submitted it elsewhere and then, almost three years later, re-submitted to Ronsdale.

“I just had it in my head, ‘well perhaps now I’ve worked on it and I feel I’ve maybe addressed their problem … ‘”

As it turns out, she had. The Vancouver-based publisher picked up the book and put it out this fall. Lilley will launch it locally, at Baked Cafe on Nov. 29.

It’s not her first book (Lilley has published a collection of short stories as well as two books of poetry), but it is her first novel. She said that’s significant to her because she worked on it for 17 years.

“It’s been all my life, really all my adult life I’ve been trying, failing, so it’s really amazing for me personally,” she told the News on Nov. 9.

The book follows a British art historian named Jenny as she works in Nunavut, studying Inuit art. When her mother has a stroke in Scotland, Jenny flies home to be with her, and reckon with a past that includes both parents joining a cult when Jenny was young.

Lilley said that, during the time she worked and re-worked the novel, she had a lot of rejections, but notes the bright sides that came with them.

“What is good is with a rejection, if (good) is the right word, is often you haven’t seen it for maybe a few weeks or months. You send it off to a journal, a story or poem, and then I don’t think about it while it’s with them and then when they do reject it, I look at it again and I have a bit of distance which is actually quite useful, and then I make a few tweaks and then I send it off again. So it sort of forces you to not think about it for a while, which I find so useful.”

Also useful? A writing group you trust.

Lilley said she has that in the three local writers who will read alongside her at her launch. She said Ellen Bielawski, Patti Flather and Lily Gontard have been reading drafts of her work for years, offering advice on what is and is not working.

One of the things she really struggled with, she said, was how to structure the book, which covers periods of Jenny’s life as a child and as an adult in her 20s. At one point, Lilley said she wrote the whole thing chronologically, but it came in at 150,000 words. While many of those words were cut (the book now clocks in at about 92,000 words), and the structure now shifts back and forth in time, she said the exercise wasn’t time wasted because it helped her understand the story and develop her character more fully.

Lilley also said that while the novel is fiction, there are elements that came from her own family experience. One of those is the sense that Lilley shares with Jenny, of being the youngest and the one who wants to keep everybody together – when Lilley was 15, her sisters joined a religion which split the family.

There are also similarities in that both Lilley and Jenny are British women who were drawn to the North – to cold, tundra landscapes, and places above the treeline. That’s what led Lilley to move from the south of England to Scotland, and eventually to the Yukon in 2006.

She said she explores that a lot in her writing, not just in Worry Stones, but in her short story collection, The Birthday Books.

“I can’t really explain it,” she said. “I think it’s just a compulsion I think a lot of people share. A lot of people who are drawn to Whitehorse and the Yukon and the territories share that yearning. It’s hard to explain. Something I felt I wanted to explore here as well.”

Lilley is also exploring it in the novel she’s currently working on, about a woman who moves to Whitehorse in the midst of making a series of big mistakes.

Worry Stones is available at Mac’s Fireweed Bookstore, Coles and on Kindle. The launch will be hosted by poet Jamella Hagen at Baked, at 7 p.m. on Nov. 29

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com

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