Guest Post by Marnie Lamb
Most people write stories and poems in childhood, either for fun or for school assignments. For those who enjoy writing, one of the happiest experiences occurs when the parameters of a school assignment dovetail with personal creative interests. For me, this happened in my first month of grade seven, when we were assigned to write a short story on a topic of our choice.
I created three new characters who were my age and began writing about them: the main character, named Hilary, and her two very different friends, Carrie and Lynn. The story spun out as easily as a ribbon from a spool. I don’t recall the plot details, but the characters’ personalities remain etched in my mind. Lynn, the blonde who loved shopping and music. Carrie, the wild-haired girl with odd habits, like a need to worship vague deities named “the spirits” four times a day. At these times, wherever she was, she would kneel down and begin chanting, much to the embarrassment of Hilary and Lynn. And Hilary, the quiet brunette peacemaker who was most like me.
I liked these characters so much that I began writing about them outside of school. These early stories were comic escapades of the three girls’ adventures in my favourite city, Toronto. A visit to the Eaton Centre, the largest downtown mall. A trip to Exhibition Stadium to watch the Blue Jays baseball game. In one of these stories, the winds whipped and the sky greyed as the baseball game ended. The girls hurried home to their neighbourhood, Rosedale. (When I was writing the story, I asked my dad, who grew up in Brampton, to name a nice neighbourhood in Toronto. By “nice,” I meant similar to the suburban Ottawa neighbourhood in which we lived, but misunderstanding my meaning, my father pointed me to one of the wealthiest and most elite parts of Toronto.) I used a map to list the names of the streets down which the girls scurried in the dark and sultry summer evening, racing to get home before the storm broke: Crescent Road, South Drive, Elm Avenue.
It wasn’t until the girls were almost at Hilary’s house that they realized that a figure was skulking behind them in the shadows. Just as they were about to clobber the stalker with a baseball bat, they realized that it was only a concession worker who had followed them home to deliver their game-day program, which they’d left in the bathroom.
The next year, I left Hilary, Carrie, and Lynn behind. Their stories were fun and harmless, like a mouth that is all gums and no teeth. But I carved narratives with more bite, so I began writing mystery stories set in grand decaying mansions and tales of romantic entanglements. In my later high school years, my quest for straight As precluded writing outside of school assignments, because all my time and energy were directed towards studying. But my love for storytelling remained, and the grades and comments that my stories earned, from teachers and peers alike, encouraged me in that pursuit.
In university, I hoped to have more opportunities to write. Alas, neither of the two institutions in my hometown offered a creative writing degree. Instead, I chose to study the next best subject, English literature, which meant that I wrote essays in almost all my classes. The one exception was my third-year creative writing seminar. By that time, I was writing adult (or what I thought were adult) short stories. Hilary, Carrie, and Lynn had disappeared from the rear-view mirror several exits ago.
When I decided to pursue a creative writing MA three years later, the trio resurfaced. As part of my application, I had to write a statement outlining my vision for my master’s thesis. Ideas for several longer stories had been floating in my mind for some time. But when I sat down to write the statement, Hilary and her friends presented themselves as a possible subject for the book-length work that would constitute my final project.
Why did this happen? The seeds were planted in grade six. Beginning that year, I was bullied. One comfort that helped me through the experience was walking by myself in the snow of the schoolyard, bundled up in an unstylish snowsuit to protect against the minus-thirty-degree January weather, telling stories in my head. I promised myself that one day, I would publish a book, be famous, live in a penthouse in New York, and never have to see any of my classmates again.
The stories that existed only in my mind came before Hilary, Carrie, and Lynn, but as I was pondering my statement, I wondered what would happen if I juxtaposed these characters, whom I’d always liked, onto my own experiences. The premise would need to be much weightier than a walk home in pre-storm weather, the antagonist more threatening than a well-meaning if socially awkward stranger. What if the chasm between Carrie and Lynn were too wide for them to be friends, and Hilary were caught in the middle? What if being different caused more backlash than just a friend’s embarrassed chiding? What if one or more of the characters were bullied? I included this premise as one of three or four options for my thesis.
I was accepted into the MA program at the University of Windsor and didn’t have to think about my thesis until a year after I’d submitted my application. The graduate creative writing seminar, which all creative writing students would take before writing their thesis, ran from September to April. In February, I began thinking more seriously about my final project, and only one serious possibility emerged from the scraps of stories begun in my head or on paper: the story of Hilary, Carrie, and Lynn.
The idea of plunging right into a novel was daunting, so I decided to present the narrative as a short story to my seminar class. This time, the tale spun out like a ribbon unspooling itself, eager to show the world its splendor. The draft ballooned into a fifty-page novella. Although I considered the story to be a rough first draft, I was encouraged by the positive reaction it garnered. Along with the praise came constructive suggestions for improving the story, including changing Carrie’s name, which was too derivative of Stephen King. This character had so long been Carrie to me, though, that I couldn’t alter her name too radically. Hence, Kallie was born.
At the end of the year, the seminar students were asked to write a short piece about their individual poetics. I began by writing about why I wanted to develop my novella into a novel and about my connection with the three characters, saying, “I feel that I need to get this story ‘out’ before I can go on to any other writing.” The novella did indeed become the novel that was my thesis: The Official Autobiography of Hilary Laura Boles.
I’ve tinkered with the manuscript over the years, including changing the title, but The History of Hilary Hambrushina is similar to the manuscript I submitted as my thesis project all those years ago and which help earn me a master’s degree in creative writing. Over the years, many people have wondered why I continued to pursue publication of the manuscript, in the face of rejections, shrinking opportunities for first-time authors, self-doubt, others’ doubt. It’s been a steep and stony road, travelled largely alone.
I continued out of love, faith, and honour. Love for the story and characters. Faith in not only the quality of the story but also its importance. Honour to my younger self, that child so determined to rise above the dross of her school life, to dream of a happier future. It seemed only fair to tackle an obstacle less daunting than the ordeal of facing taunting peers on a daily basis at a tender age. Even though I never bought that New York penthouse, I think my twelve-year-old self would be proud.
The History of Hilary Hambrushina
Publication date: May 31st 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
Hilary has one goal for her first year in junior high: to become popular. But her plans are turned upside down when her best friend leaves for the summer and a quirky girl named Kallie moves in next door. Kallie paints constellations on her ceiling, sleeps in a hammock, and enacts fantastical plays in front of cute boys on the beach. Yet despite Kallie’s lack of interest in being -cool, – Hilary and Kallie find themselves becoming friends. That summer friendship, however, is put to the test when school begins, reigniting Hilary’s obsession with climbing the social ladder. As Hilary discovers the dark side to popularity, she must decide who she wants to be before she loses everything.
A Journey Prize nominee, Marnie Lamb earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Windsor. Her short stories have appeared in various Canadian literary journals. Her first novel, a YA book named The History of Hilary Hambrushina, is forthcoming from Iguana Books. When she is not writing fiction or running her freelance editing business, she can be found cooking recipes with eggplant or scouting out colourful fashions at the One of a Kind Show.
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