Over the course of her working life, JoAnn McCaig has become an established literary authority in Western Canada. She began her writing career as an ad copywriter, and eventually earned three degrees in English literature. In her 20 years of teaching English at the University of Calgary, JoAnn ensured that hundreds of students not only overcame their fear of poetry, but also learned how to use the semicolon correctly. JoAnn published her first novel in 2000, and in 2007 became a founding board member of Calgary literary press Freehand Books. In 2010 she realized a lifelong dream by opening Shelf Life Books, an independent bookstore in Calgary’s inner city Beltline area, thereby making the circle of bookishness complete.
“I like to involve the reader in the making of meaning, rather than handing the reader a story in a neat little package.”
I’ve been a book nerd all my life, from my earliest memories of snuggling with my mom and brother to hear the latest adventures of The Bobbsey Twins. In elementary school, I loved to find library books about historical figures like Lady Jane Grey and Spain’s Little Infanta, and I started high school in the late 60s with a copy of a Hemingway biography under my arm. In grade 11 psych class, I chose to read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment for an essay assignment on conscience.
My university years were devoted to the study and teaching of English literature. I taught English as a sessional lecturer for twenty years, and the course I enjoyed most was the historical survey class for honours and majors students, affectionately known as ‘From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf.’ When my kids were young, it was not unusual to have their viewing of the Simpsons interrupted by me yelling over the kitchen counter, “Did you catch that reference to King Lear?”
For me, having a role in introducing students to the wondrous language of Shakespeare and Keats, to the power and drama of the Brontes and Faulkner, to the visionary genius of Blake and Atwood, is a joy and a privilege. In my own work, I tend to create the kind of complex, layered structures I enjoy reading – like Swann: A Mystery by Carol Shields, or Joshua Then and Now by Mordecai Richler, or Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.
While I was a sales rep for Calgary-based Freehand Books in 2008 when they first began publishing, I didn’t actually meet JoAnn McCaig, the founder of the press, until a few years later, and that was through mutual friends, Audrey and Doug Andrews. JoAnn was beginning to set up Shelf Life Books by that point, and I was no longer a sales rep, but was promoting authors directly through Alberta Books Canada. I attended a number of events at Shelf Life, including their grand opening – always a lot of fun, and the store has continued to do a great job of supporting local authors and publishing.
An Honest Woman
Stories nest inside stories in An Honest Woman, JoAnn McCaig’s very bookish novel about the writerly process and about the places where literary ambition collides with erotic desire.
If there ever was a time and place to explore the territory of mature women and their journeys this would be the time. The subjects of sex, passion, confidence in JoAnn McCaig’s An Honest Woman are beautifully played out against society’s stereotypes of women as they age and as they confront the truths of themselves outside the societal frameworks in which they have been boxed. There are metafictional elements turned loose in this novel. First, there is an intensely self-conscious narrator and second, there are characters who live inside fictional worlds and travel outside those worlds for intense real-life encounters. Their storytelling draws attention to themselves as both living, breathing people but also fleshed-out fictional world characters. The structure of the novel is complex, layered, and interwoven. There are several narrators, stories within stories, and writers making things up and fantasizing while living real (albeit fictional) lives. There are literary allusions galore and cameo appearances by thinly disguised famous authors. It can all get a little crazy, so McCaig has provided a few support materials: an infographic that maps out the different characters, and relationships and authorships, a fairly detailed table of contents, a few postscripts, and a couple of appendices. Watch for symbols that indicate that the narrator has lapsed into fantasy and for when she returns to her “real” life, such as it is. That said, An Honest Woman has enough grounded familiar plot lines to keep a general reader interested and layered ambiguities to keep the well-read interested. While there is some undermining of traditional literary conventions, there is nothing lost in McCaig’s exploration of the relationship between literature and life. The novel is humorous, and sometimes really funny; it is also a smart and warm and moving read.
“An immensely gutsy novel that works to both undermine and expand its own story through an entertaining and teasing literary puzzle\u2026. This is an intelligent and, especially, a brilliantly written novel.”
— Sharon Butala (an Authors-Readers International series author)
What JoAnn McCaig is working on now: A forthcoming publication is an essay called “Mastery of the Instrument” which will appear next year in a University of Alberta Press anthology called You Look Good For Your Age. The novel I’m working on now is called The Venus Hum. It’s a trio of linked novellas that follow the life of a woman named Seren.
For more information about JoAnn McCaig, her writing, books, publishing, and bookselling, please see her website.