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Writing life: Ivan E Coyote

A novel emerges after disaster

FROM WHITEHORSE TO PHOENIX. Popular storyteller Ivan E Coyote saw her first novel, Bow Grip, go up in flames before anyone -- including herself -- read it. Credit: James Loewen

Ivan E Coyote didn’t exactly set out to write a novel. She was guilted into it. In November of 2004, she told one of her writing classes in Vancouver to write the 1,700 words a day required for National Novel Writing Month.

“I talked a bunch of my students into it because I figured it would be good discipline,” says Coyote, author of three short story collections; her debut novel is called Bow Grip. “And the bastards all signed up and were consistently making their daily quotas. I felt like I had to keep up, just to be a good role model.”

Though she hadn’t planned to write a novel that fall, she had certainly been thinking about it for a long while. Bow Grip’s main character, Joey, is a composite of Coyote’s father and uncles, and many of its other characters are drawn from people she grew up with in Whitehorse. The idea for the plot had occurred to her 10 years earlier, through a story a coworker told her. She had all the pieces in place, and her students provided the incentive necessary to begin writing.

“I would just sit down every night when all my other work was done, turn off the internal editor, and write until I reached 2,000 words,” she says. “I wouldn’t let myself stop until I was done. It probably took 10 years off my life, and it cost me a fortune in cigarettes and Red Bull, but I got a first draft out of it.”

Coyote has been writing and publishing for almost 10 years, and has developed a signature storytelling style since the 1998 release of Boys Like Her with the Taste This collective. She is a regular contributor to Xtra’s Vancouver sibling Xtra West, and many of her columns have been reprinted in Toronto’s Xtra. But a novel was a completely new experience for her, and turned out to be one of the biggest challenges of her writing career.

“I really had no evidence that I was capable of doing it in the first place,” Coyote explains. “It was terrifying. Every day I felt like I had to slay my inner dragons just to keep going. Especially through the revisions. By the end, I had no objectivity… I couldn’t tell if I was doing good work or wading through vomit.”

Her short stories hadn’t required nearly as much editing, as they often came out almost fully formed (and under less pressure). Also, many of her stories are creative nonfiction, based on her life and describing real occurrences and people.

Then there was the problem of sustaining a much longer piece of work. Coyote’s stories are often really short, rarely going beyond four pages. In trying to break the 200-page mark, she felt a kinship with writer Ann-Marie MacDonald, who only finishes a novel if she promises to never put herself through it again.

Despite the obstacles, Coyote completed the project. Then she almost lost it in an unexpected disaster. No one, not even its author, had read Bow Grip, when in March 2005 a house fire destroyed everything Coyote owned, including her backup discs and most of the only printed version of the novel.

“All I had was a charred and water-stained hard copy of the first 180 pages, barely readable in parts. The last seven chapters were gone. It was freaky, and one of the biggest losses I mourned.

“Luckily my cousin dug the hard drive out of my desktop right before the house was torn down, and we dried it out for two months, just in case it was salvageable. It was covered in soot and smelled like smoke, but I took it in to my computer guy.”

When the skeptical technician plugged it in, Coyote’s files miraculously sprang back to life — just long enough for her to retrieve her photos, e-mail and Bow Grip.

“It was like magic, it really was.”

In the end, the book was delayed by about seven months while Coyote got her life back on track. That meant starting over — finding a home and furnishing it– while also trying to keep up with a demanding reading, performing and teaching schedule.

Now she’s back in the swing of things, working on a Yukon-themed multimedia project with singer/songwriter Rae Spoon and visual artist Valerie Salez. She also has a new storytelling and music CD in the works and she hopes to get to work on her second novel. “Because no one really means it when they say ‘never again’ to their calling.”

And of course she’s touring Bow Grip. The slippery novel has presented her with yet another challenge: Will she perform from it, memorizing material as she often does with her stories?

“The novel is still at the printers, and I haven’t read from it at all,” she says. “I haven’t memorized any of it yet. I still can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that I wrote a novel. I guess I’ll believe that when I actually hold a copy of it in my hands.”

Luckily, Coyote’s Toronto launch is at Pages Bookstore’s This Is Not A Reading Series, where writers are forbidden to read from their books, so she has a while to figure out her reading style. She won’t say what she’ll do instead of reading, but undoubtedly it will make a good story.