Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Lynn Thomson

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Lynn Thomson

Lynn Thomson is a familiar name for Toronto bibliophiles, having guided book lovers to great new reads for many years as a bookseller at both Book City and Ben McNally Books, the gorgeous Bay Street independent founded by her husband.

This year, however, she takes on a new role in the book world with the publication of Birding with Yeats (House of Anansi). A memoir about her son Yeats and their unexpected and shared love of bird watching, Birding with Yeats follows the mother and son duo on their expeditions into the natural world as Yeats, fiercely individual and acutely sensitive, starts his own expedition into the adult world.

Today Lynn speaks with Open Book about the restorative power of bird watching, navigating the process of writing about family and experiencing a new role in the literary community.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Birding with Yeats.

Lynn Thomson:

Birding with Yeats is a memoir of the birding trips my son Yeats, and I took while he was in high school. I write about Yeats as a small child, too, and tell stories about my family, so that readers can understand why a teenaged boy might want to spend hours alone in the forest with his mother, looking for birds. A second thread of the book is my job as a bookseller, because the month Yeats began high school, September 2007, was the month my husband opened his bookshop, Ben McNally Books. I have worked there part time right from the start, as have my step-children. So bird watching and book selling are intertwined in the story. A third thread of the book involves the desires we have to hold on to things — our children, our marriages, the ideas we have of who we are. During the course of writing the book, I was faced with a health problem that gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate my life and its direction, and I write about that in the book, too.


You describe birdwatching as "a place, not just an activity". What are some of the most surprising pleasures you've gotten from birding? And what advice might you offer to beginner?


There’s a moment when I step into the forest, when I am suddenly surrounded by trees and ferns and dappled sunlight, when I feel my whole self exhale. All the sounds and pressures of whatever is outside the forest — parking lot, cars, the rest of my life — disappear and I am left with this sense of belonging to myself and to the Earth. Bird watching gives me that every time. This is the gift of it and yes, it continues to be surprising, I think because life outside bird watching is so intense! Living in a big city is hard on our bodies and spirits! The surprise comes with remembering how I feel when I feel so good. As for advice for beginners — find a bird guide (the library carries them if you don’t want to buy one, and there are great aps, too), and maybe some binoculars (they don’t have to be huge and expensive), and go to a park. There are lots of birds in parks. Toronto has fabulous places to bird watch: the Leslie Street Spit, Ashbridges, Riverdale Farm, all the ravines….Walk around, but also stand still, or sit somewhere and wait. Cultivate patience.


How did you approach this project with Yeats? Did you consult with him through the writing process?


Before I agreed to write the book (Janie Yoon at House of Anansi commissioned it), I asked Ben and Yeats what they thought. I wasn’t going to write it if either of them was uncomfortable, but they were both very excited for me. While I was writing it, I asked both Ben and Yeats hundreds of questions. I wanted to get things as ‘right’ as I could, both in terms of what we did when and also how people felt about events. I asked Yeats hundreds of questions about the birds we saw. He drew up a long list of which birds we saw when, because I don’t keep that kind of data in my journals. And he fact-checked the final draft of the book, which was a good thing since I’d managed to make some errors even with his lists handy.


After years of bookselling experience, you have a deep understanding of the book trade. Was there anything that surprised you about your experience on the writing side of the equation?


I’ve heard authors tell lots of stories over the years about how difficult the editing process is, so I was prepared for that. But what I didn’t know, was how much fun it was going to be, and how deeply rewarding. Even on the days when I wanted to tear my hair out because I knew something was wrong with a particular section, but I couldn’t figure out what, I was still elated to be doing that work. I found that accessing my creative self day after day was like taking a tonic. I hadn’t expected the physical aspects — sitting at the desk, getting up to stretch and muse a bit, going for a walk to clear my mind, getting back to the desk — would be that rewarding.


You credit your writing group, The Moving Pen, as essential to your development as a writer. What benefits do you find workshop groups offer writers? Would you recommend these groups to other authors?


In The Moving Pen, we write to prompts and then go around the table and read our writing out to one another. The idea is not to critique, it’s just to witness one another’s writing and to get the stories flowing from the pen. I would definitely recommend this sort of workshop to people who want to write. It’s helped me to develop my voice and given me confidence that what I have to say is something other people want to hear. It’s helped me to learn where my weak spots are and what I need to work on (dialogue, for example!), but also my strengths.


Did you read any other memoirs while working on this book? Are there any you found inspiring prior to or during this project?


I keep a list of all the books I read, and at one point when I was working on the final draft of Birding with Yeats, I re-read my lists for the previous couple of years. I realized how little non-fiction I’d read — way less than usual. I’d read almost exclusively fiction for the whole writing of my book, an unconscious choice. So no, I read no memoirs while writing this book! I guess I was subconsciously protecting myself from outside influences. But having said that, the book that has influenced me the most over my adult life is The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. I re-read it nearly every year, so I did read this one while writing. I love that book! It speaks to me in a different way every time I read it and I learn something about myself as a result.


What are you working on now?


Right now I am working on the publicity for Birding with Yeats. I’ve decided to give myself the mental space to devote to this part of the process since it’s all so new to me. I’m still working in the bookshop and still a mother/wife/daughter/sister…Life is full and busy and I want to do a good job promoting this book, so I’m giving this a couple of months before launching into another writing project.

Lynn Thomson is a bookseller in Toronto, Canada. Birding with Yeats is her first book.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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