The Chat With Anne Fleming

Anne Fleming photo by Martin Dee_1
TREVOR CORKUM cropped

This week we turn to magical YA fiction on The Chat. I’m in conversation with BC-based author Anne Fleming, author of The Goat. This charming novel follows Kid, who accompanies her parents to New York City for a six-month stint of dog-sitting and home-schooling, but hears rumours of a goat living on the roof of her building and decides to investigate.

Of the book, Kirkus Reviews says “Fleming has created delightfully eccentric and warmhearted characters that exist in a close-knit community in lovely, accurately described New York City venues.” According to The National Post, “If Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach made a kids’ movie (pun intended), this would certainly be their script.”

Anne Fleming is the author of Pool-Hopping and Other Stories (shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the Danuta Gleed Award and the Governor General’s Award), and Anomaly and Gay Dwarves of America. She is a long-time and highly regarded teacher of creative writing who has taught at the University of British Columbia, Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Douglas College, Kwantlen University College and the Banff Centre for the Arts. The Goat is her first full-length work for young readers.

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THE CHAT WITH ANNE FLEMING

Trevor Corkum: Mountain goats are among my favourite animals. They’re so agile and appear so carefree. I remember being stopped on the Trans Canada Highway outside Golden, waiting for a small herd to scramble down a seemingly impossibly steep cliff. But I’ve never seen one (yet) in Manhattan. What was your inspiration for the book?

Anne Fleming: The buildings in Manhattan. So accommodating for ledge-dwellers. I was in New York for a conference (AWP). My kid was little at the time, like about six or so, and would miss me a lot when I was away, so I decided I’d start a story and send a little section of it via email each day. On the first day, as I wandered around marvelling at the architecture, I noted a high preponderance of apartment buildings with ledges, and seeing one with a particularly large ledge, I thought, “Man, a goat could live on that.” That evening, I sat down at the computer in my tiny Pod Hotel room and wrote: “Once there was a mountain goat who lived in New York city. The building he lived on had great views and many sturdy ledges for him to stand majestically on high above the world. Unfortunately, it failed to grow anything, at least anything that could keep a goat alive.”

On the first day, as I wandered around marvelling at the architecture, I noted a high preponderance of apartment buildings with ledges, and seeing one with a particularly large ledge, I thought, “Man, a goat could live on that.”

TC: You’ve written one of those amazing books that’s aimed at a YA audience but has universal appeal. Its underlying message of resilience, its tongue-in-cheek humour, and its compelling cast of Manhattanites will appeal to all ages. Did you set out to write a YA book? Or did the scope expand as you wrote?

 
AF: After that initial burst of four emails chronicling the travails of this hungry goat, the apartment he lived on and its paltry geraniums, the mystified Doris Fenniford-Lysinksi who couldn’t understand what happened to her wheatgrass, her husband, who knew, but couldn’t tell her because his speech had been impaired by a stroke, and the arrival of Kid, I knew I had a story I really liked, and I knew it would be aimed first at kids. But I couldn’t think about it too much as a kids’ book or I harmed it. Without meaning to or wanting to, and knowing fully that the books I connected deeply to as a child have no border somewhere at the end of childhood (and the children’s books I love and admire now as an adult I view on an equal footing with other books), I concocted some wrong-headed notion of what “children’s book” meant and began writing dishonestly. So I asked myself to have fun and to be as honest as possible.

I knew I had a story I really liked, and I knew it would be aimed first at kids. But I couldn’t think about it too much as a kids’ book or I harmed it. Without meaning to or wanting to, and knowing fully that the books I connected deeply to as a child have no border ...

TC: What sort of research was involved in writing the book? Did you get to explore high-rise rooftops in NYC, hang out in Egyptian tombs, tour the Guggenheim? Did you get to see a whack of fun off-Broadway shows?

AF: Oh, so much. I researched mountain goats—actually a species of antelope, not goats at all—what they ate, how much, when they gave birth, whether they ever fell off of mountains (yes), etc. I researched quite a lot about the fall of the Twin Towers, reading many accounts of that day from many different perspectives, so I sat at my desk crying a lot for a while. I researched particular backpacking routes in the southern Cascades.

Other than that four-day trip to Manhattan in 2008, I didn’t do any in-person research. That trip was fantastic, but lonely. I told myself ahead of time I would go against my natural reticence and be super extroverted. I would go up to people at the conference and introduce myself. I would meet people and they would invite me places. So I did. I was super friendly. I introduced myself like crazy. And nobody invited me anywhere, not even for supper or a drink. But I did go to the Met, where I realized I needed about eight more days to properly see the collection, and to the New York Public Library, and to Central Park, and I saw as many plays as I could. All through it, I just wished I were seeing this stuff with other people, especially people I loved. So in a way, writing the book was a way to go back and get to know the city better with people I loved.

The Internet is a giant gift. I used Google Earth to look at Manhattan rooftops (did you know there’s one that boasts an entire suburban home, complete with driveway and garage? Actually, I just googled it again, and there are more than one. Some of them are here: I watched tourist videos of Perneb’s tomb to remind myself of the details of it, as well as the Met’s own videos, which are a terrific resource.

There’s more, but I won’t drown you in detail.

I used Google Earth to look at Manhattan rooftops (did you know there’s one that boasts an entire suburban home, complete with driveway and garage?

TC: I’m always interested in what an author creates that doesn’t make it into the final manuscript. Are there any deleted B-scenes that didn’t make it into the novel? Or are there any goat-related sequels in the works?

AF: In my original draft, the mom was a single mom whose gay brother (who knits for a living and has severe anxiety) comes with them to New York to be Kid’s caregiver while Lisa’s at rehearsals and doing the show. I had Kid going to a Waldorf-type school that involved a daily walk across the park. There were some good moments in that version, but it didn’t cohere as well as when I dropped Uncle Andrew and replaced him with Bobby, Kid’s dad.

A sequel never occurred to me, but my kid has thoughts about what should happen next, so you never know.

TC: What do you have on the go now, Anne? What’s next for you?

AF: I deeply want to finish a novel for adults that I have been working on for so many years that I am now calling it “the stupid novel,” as in, “I can’t wait to finish this stupid novel.” It’s set in seventeenth-century England and follows the fates of two young children orphaned by plague in 1603 and cared for briefly by a woman with an actual horn behind her ear.

I deeply want to finish a novel for adults that I have been working on for so many years that I am now calling it “the stupid novel,” as in, “I can’t wait to finish this stupid novel.”

I’m also pruning and shaping a collection of essays that are part memoir, part thoughts on writing and reading.

And I have three story ideas for novels for children that I am keen to get to work on. Luckily I have a sabbatical this coming year.

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Excerpt from The Goat

Once there was a mountain goat who lived in New York City. The building he lived on had great views and many sturdy ledges to stand on high above the metropolis.

Unfortunately, not much grew on the building. Not much a goat could eat.

True, there was that bucket of hay that appeared on the upper ledge each morning. And there were cedars on the penthouse deck, and people put out window boxes every now and then.

But the bucket was a snack, he’d eaten the cedars down to the bark, and geraniums don’t go far when you’re a goat.

This excerpt is taken from The Goat, copyright © 2017 by Anne Fleming. Reproduced with permission from Groundwood Books, Toronto. www.groundwoodbooks.com

July 26, 2017
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