Storyteller Ivan E Coyote may be best known for her gender-fluid, autobiographical takes on daily life, but she insists the straight male narrator of her debut novel Bow Grip is purely fictional.
“My whole impetus behind this was to step out of what I was comfortable doing,” says the 37-year-old Yukon native. “I wanted to try and create a believable character that wasn’t me and wasn’t based on me and wasn’t based on anybody that I really knew. I wanted to construct him. There’s little bits of a lot of people inside [Joey] but he really is my first truly and completely fictional character.”
Bow Grip is about Joey’s journey of self-discovery in a world of changing values, Coyote says, adding the story works better from an unambiguously male perspective.
Though she understands why some people may assume that Joey is another facet of her own gender-bending self-portrait, she maintains he isn’t. In fact, she says, she spent a lot of time in city parks observing how men walk, talk, dress, and hold their coffee cups to bring Joey to life.
“I thought about this book for 10 years before I sat down to write a word of it,” she says. “There’s a lot of my dad in [Joey], in some ways… My dad is extremely funny. On the outside, he’s kind of a tough, redneck guy, but once you get to know him, he’s really kind. He has really strict ethical standards that he lives his life by.
“I guess I’m lucky that I come from a family where there’s a lot of men that I really respect and admire in different ways,” she continues. The men in Coyote’s life include her father, a welder; and uncles who are mechanics, carpenters and electricians.
“I learned a lot of stuff by osmosis,” says Coyote, who went to electrical school at BC’s Institute of Technology after two years of music studies. “I worked in trades for a few years while building my writing career. I didn’t want to be a broke writer and thought it was good to have something to fall back on.”
In Bow Grip, Joey struggles to rebuild his own life after his wife leaves him for another woman. Fiercely private, Joey runs a small-town Alberta mechanic shop that he inherited from his father, and spends his spare time watching TV, drinking and smoking, and trying to forget about his lost love and loneliness.
Witnessing how Joey’s grief is paralyzing him, family and friends encourage him to take up a hobby, start dating again–do anything to get out of his rut.
After trading an old used car for an antique cello, Joey seizes the opportunity to shift his energy and start putting his life back on track. A series of events leads him on a road trip to Calgary, where strangers–with their own pasts, problems and sexual preferences–become his confidants.
Coyote wrote the first draft in November 2004, during National Novel Writing Month. Four months and several drafts later, the unfinished manuscript nearly perished when her East Vancouver house burned to the ground.
“I lived there for 13 years,” recalls Coyote. “I was in the house about 15 minutes before the flames really broke out. If I had done my original plan, which was to sleep in, I would be dead right now because I would have been caught in the house…
“I lost everything I owned. Everything was gone except for my tools that were in the garage. But every stitch of clothing, every book, everything I owned…”
Her computer melted, her laptop “was a complete brickette,” hard copies of writing turned to ashes, and the backup disks of 15 years worth of work were destroyed.
“I had backup all over the place, but I was prepared for a computer crash, not a computer burn.”
Desperate, Coyote took her charred computer hard drive, which had been drying out in a towel for nearly three months in a closet, to a computer store where they miraculously got it to boot up long enough to retrieve her writing and e-mail files. Coupled with a charred hard copy of the book’s first 180 pages, it was enough to get back to work.
“I actually felt like it was really a sign that I was on the right track,” Coyote says. “To have everything in your life taken out from under you, except for your work and your tools, for a working-class person, it was like ‘okay, I get it. I have to just keep on working then. I’m on the right track. Don’t give up, keep at it and it’ll be fine.'”
Still, trying to finish the book in the fire’s aftermath and the subsequent search for a new home proved challenging.
“I can’t write in chaos,” explains Coyote, who developed certain rituals to help her focus. “The house has to be clean. That’s the first thing. The whole house has to get scoured first. I fill up my fridge full of groceries. I make a stew.
“That [book] was mostly written at night,” she continues. “I fluctuate between being a morning writer or a late-night writer, depending on what’s going on in my life at the time.”
Coyote admits that creating a fictional novel was a huge challenge compared to writing her usual short, first-person narratives drawn from her own experiences and observations.
“It’s a terrifying process to make that shift from short story to novel. For me it was, anyway. I really felt like I was in new territory. I felt my feet searching for the bottom a lot in that process.”