Within the first three pages of Marjorie Celonas debut novel Y, named to the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist this week, the downtown Victoria setting begins to take shape.
A Langford man drives into town along the Trans-Canada Highway as it narrows into Douglas Street, passing Thompsons Foam Shop, White Spot, Red Hot Video, the Travellers Inn, the bright red brick of City Hall and the McDonalds on the corner that fills with teenaged beggars.
If he had more time, hed drive right to the tip of the Island and watch the sun come up over Dallas Road. Instead, he turns toward Christ Church Cathedral and waits to be the first person through the doors at the YMCA, where he watches a mother abandon her newborn child.
Setting was important for the Victoria-born-and-bred author, whose debut novel follows the abandoned child through an adolescence of foster care.
I think, in some ways, this novel for me is a way of memorializing Victoria, from when I lived there, when I was a girl, Celona, 31, said from her current home in Cincinnati, Ohio. At some point, I decided to cover it with as many specific details as possible that I could remember through the late 80s and through the 90s in Victoria.
Celona grew up in Fernwood and graduated from Victoria High School before studying creative writing at the University of Victoria. She has since moved around the United States for various fellowships and residencies, including completing her master of fine arts degree at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
She wrote Y while thinking of home, from a cabin in upstate New York, during a one-year fellowship at Colgate University.
I was sort of in the forest it had a very similar climate, that kind of dark earthiness that a forest has, she said. To be there in a place that is so far away from Vancouver Island, but to be reminded of my home, made it easy to write about Vancouver Island.
The first seed of Y was planted much earlier, however, when Celona was preparing for an internship with UVics literary magazine, The Malahat Review. Nervous about the gig, she pored over back issues, looking for editorial biases and anything else that might ease her transition into the role. But she got distracted by the layout and font specifically the beautiful drop caps (large, stylized letters at the beginning of a story), and even more specifically, the frequency of the letter Y in that form. Before conceiving of the novels main character, Shannon, or her mother, Yula, she began writing Y.
The initial inspiration was a fascination with the letter Y itself. The sound of it, the shape of it, symbols of it that I kept noticing, she said. And from there, a first line popped into my head: My life begins at the Y.
She wrote a short story based on the theme for a UVic fiction workshop in 2004. And although polished drafts were published and anthologized, she felt the story was unfinished.
It had unanswered questions, she said. While Shannon was a fully developed character, her mother remained a mystery. I wrote the novel, essentially, to finally find Shannons mother.
Celona didnt grow up in foster care, but said she can relate to Shannons character in other ways.
Shannon and I share a restlessness of spirit, she said. Were both Island children and we both felt and feel confined by being on an Island. But more than just a geographical restlessness, I think we both have restless souls. I move around a lot; I move almost every year. Im not sure what thats about, but to me, thats the part of Shannon I can relate to the most that sort of eye-on-the-door quality.
Celona did research for Y in two stages. First, she read newspaper articles and books about children who had been abandoned. After writing her first draft of the novel, she spoke with people who had dealt with the foster-care system, interviewing social workers, foster parents and foster children through the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
It was partially to ensure her facts were straight and scenarios shed created were realistic. She also wanted to make sure she was hitting the right emotional notes, she said, to get a sense of what it would feel like to yearn for your birth parents.
While facts shifted in the story, the emotional tenor of the novel didnt.
You can research about anything, but you cant research somebodys reaction to something, or how anybody feels, she said. Youve either got it inside you to write, or you dont.
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