That’s the only way I can describe the Toronto Book Launch for my first novel, See What Flowers.
So many of my closest friends and family gathered together at The Steady Café and Bar to celebrate my book being published. I could feel the warmth of love all night. I truly appreciated that so many people made the effort to partake in this special night.
The night, MC’d by Rachael Glassman, began with a musical performance by my amazingly talented friend, Keira Loukes. Her choice of songs: hopeful, angry, sad, accepting, perfectly captured the theme of love and mental illness that centres the novel.
Keira’s performance was followed by an “Author Q & A” led by Toronto-writer, Louise Johnson, a friend of mine from summers spent in Norway Bay, Québec (who I previously interviewed for the Inspiring Women Series). Louise asked me about my writing process, the inspiration behind the book, and some content-specific questions about See What Flowers.
I closed the night by reading three passages from the novel that I felt showed the characters of Adam Davison and Emma Watters, as well as two of the settings: Toronto and the Canadian Arctic.
Oh, and then I signed the book that I wrote! How cool!
The first draft of my début novel, See What Flowers, was written in Toronto, after I’d returned from just over a year of teaching in Nunavut, Canada. (Check out my interview in Shedoesthecity for details on how living and working in the Canadian Arctic influenced the writing and research for my novel. )
In addition to Vancouver and the Arctic, much of See What Flowers is set in Toronto, particularly on Dufferin Street and Bloordale Village. Landmarks such as Christie Pits Park, the Baldwin Steps (Spadina stairs by Casa Loma), Snakes & Lattes, Toronto Western Hospital, High Park, and the #29 Dufferin bus are described in the novel.
Not only is Toronto featured in See What Flowers, but various locations in the city also inspired the writing of it. Here’s a few Toronto landmarks where See What Flowers was written:
1. Boxcar Social (Summerhill)
Boxcar Social is my favourite café in Toronto. I love the ambience, the lattés, and the back patio. One Sunday afternoon, I even saw Andrew Coyne, one of my heros in Canadian writing, there. He was writing too. I was writing. He was writing. I thought, maybe one day, we’ll both be Canadian writers. Maybe one day.
Boxcar will always have a special place in my heart because that is where I finished the first draft of See What Flowers.
It was a Saturday night in October 2015, just a few weeks before I left Toronto for a year to teach in Colombia. I arrived at the café at about 7pm intending to stay for a couple of hours. The café turned into a nightclub and I didn’t even notice. At midnight I was still writing. Some guys came over to ask me if I was freezing and if they should close the back door. I didn’t even notice that the back door was open. I didn’t even notice that it was dark out. I didn’t even notice that the café had turned into a bar. It was like I was in the zone on a long run. All I could focus on was what I was doing right then. The writing.
The last thirty or so pages of the book contain the strongest writing. They are also the most autobiographical and get as close to the truth of life as I know it. I’m really proud of them. So thank you, Boxcar Social…maybe it was the music, maybe it was the coffee, maybe it was the beer, maybe it was the crowd, but you certainly inspired something in me the night I finished the first draft of my first novel.
In 2015, I took almost a year off teaching high school to write. But I kept my job as a fitness instructor at Goodlife Fitness Clubs and taught lunch time classes from Monday to Friday at the Yorkville, Manulife Centre, and Bloor Park locations. My days usually involved writing at my aunt and uncle’s Forrest Hill mansion (where I was living) in the morning from about 8:30am-11:30am, then I would go teach my class from 12:15-1;15pm, and in the afternoon, I would go to the nearby Toronto Reference Library from about 2:00-5:00 pm.
Luckily, my good friend, Keira, was writing her Master’s thesis at the time, so we would often meet and write together at the library. This enabled us to take coffee breaks together and support each other in what can be a very isolating process.
One thing I loved about writing at the Toronto Reference Library was that I was surrounded by thousands of books. The books were written by humans. Maybe I could write a book, too. It was also great to have a free space to use for the afternoon during a time when I had very little income.
All of those afternoons spent writing at the Toronto Reference Library made for many, many coffee breaks at Balzac’s. I often brought my laptop with me and stayed there for an hour or two for a change of scene. Balzac’s coffee is some of the best in Toronto. They even have an Atwood Blend, named after Canadian literary icon, Margaret Atwood. So perhaps Balzac’s coffee contains some secret ingredient to inspire great writing.
Since she lived in the west end at the time, often my friend Keira and I would meet at Saving Gigi a hip café on Bloor at Ossington. It serves coffee, beer, brunch, and amazing salads and sandwiches. The part I loved most about writing there is that it attracts the staring artist type. I was always surrounded by others working on screenplays, articles, blog posts, graphic design, and other creative projects. Their work made my own creative venture seem less of a silly fantasy and more of a worthwhile venture.
I was inspired and motivated by others struggling to pursue their dreams at a time when social pressures were encouraging me to develop a sustainable financial plan and settle.
Just west of Saving Gigi is Bloomer’s, a homey vegan café which serves coffee, tea, beer, whiskey, salads, sandwiches, and delicious home baked goods. It is an amazing space to write, especially in the summer. It has big booths and tables, a positive vibe, and a garage-style open window which allows you to write while people watching the passerby’s on Bloor Street.
Bloomer’s is the only café in Toronto that I wrote at which is actually featured in the novel, See What Flowers. Adam and Emma’s basement neighbour, Jess, describes a terrible Tinder date experience that she had at “Bloomer’s, you know, that great vegan café at Bloor and Ossington?”
Most of my writing happens when I’m not writing. I get ideas when I’m walking or running or biking or thinking or staring into space. Or reading. I get inspired by ideas that were written by other authors and incorporate them into my characters and plot.
So when I get an idea in the midst of doing another activity, I often stop and write it in my phone. Then I email it to myself and incorporate it into the draft of my writing.
In March 2015, I marked the OSSLT (Ontario Literacy Test), which is a great opportunity for teachers to gain experience in assessment. But it is also a bit soul crushing. It is like an assembly line for grading essays. I marked the same answer from thousands of students across Ontario for two weeks straight! It took me over an hour to travel to the location of the OSSLT at the Toronto Congress Centre. I had just started writing the first draft of Parts 1 & 2 of See What Flowers, and much of it was written on the 52 Lawrence West bus as I worked a little creativity into an extremely monotonous work day.
Where I Wrote It: Outside of Toronto
While I wrote the first draft of See What Flowers in Toronto, much of the editing happened outside of the city.
See What Flowers is available as an eBook and paperback on Amazon. Thank you everyone for all of your support.
I’m so honoured to be featured on Shedoesthecity, a Toronto based site that explores anything from bizarre fashion trends to battling the tough stuff. SDTC was interested in learning more about the inspiration behind See What Flowers, my writing process, and what I learned through the writing and research of my novel.
Although the bar is packed for shows–I’d estimate 200+ people were in the audience for my story, it feels personal, like your at a family gathering.
It’s a fresh space for connection and intimacy in a city that can sometimes feel cold, lonely, and isolating.
Somehow, I pushed through my fear and sense of impostor syndrome and told my story. It was really fun, and while of course there are things I would change for next time, my first live story definitely went better than expected. I feel proud of myself for standing up and doing something that scared me.
“You have to stay authentic to what you really love, like when you were a kid, when you didn’t care what people thought…those weird quirky things…I think you should always hold onto those.”
For the sixth episode of the Inspiring Women Series, I had an insightful conversation with Louise Johnson, a Toronto-based writer and blogger. I’ve known Louise since we were kids, as both of our families spend the summers in the beautiful cottage region of Norway Bay, Quebec. I’ve always been inspired by Louise’s love for her family, her way with words, her creativity, and her courage to put her thoughts into cyberspace.
Louise grew up in Oakville, Ontario, a suburb outside of Toronto. As a young girl, her parents encouraged her to become involved numerous activities, like dance and soccer. Louise believes her incredibly busy upbringing has helped her to learn how to balance her day job with her dreams of being a writer.
As a business student at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, Louise spent her summers interning for Elizabeth Arden in New York. After graduating, she was offered a full-time job to work on the new Taylor Swift fragrance and starting making plans to relocate to New York City. However, two months before she was set to move, she was offered a position at Elizabeth Arden’s Geneva office and ended up moving to Switzerland for two years.
When she first moved to New York as an intern, Louise started the blog, Manhattan Maven, as a way of sharing her adventures abroad with her friends and family. She quickly realized her passion for writing and documenting, and the desire to pursue writing more seriously began to gnaw at her.
“It’s this invisible drive or voice inside of my head that I feel like I’ve always had. Sometimes it’s quieter than others, but it’s always there…and I just have to get it out.”
So, when she returned to New York after living in Switzerland, she assembled her writing portfolio and applied to grad school. Louise ended up getting into Harvard University’s Master’s of Journalism program and moved to Boston, where she fully committed herself to the craft of writing.
Currently, Louise is living in Toronto and working full-time as an in-house writer for an advertising agency. This allows her to pay the bills, write creatively on the side, and live closer to her tight-knit family after six years of living abroad.
“I value my family so much…I am just in a constant state of ignorant bliss when I’m with them.”
On top of her day job, Louise is freelancing for several websites such as Normale Magazine, Glamping Hub, and the Boston Day Book. Although she currently loves Toronto’s energy and social scene, she dreams of one day moving to a little cabin in the woods to write a novel.
In this episode of the Inspiring Women Series, Louise discusses why she left her incredible life in New York to pursue her dreams of becoming a writer, her obsession with her family, and the importance of living authentically.
“It’s hard to put yourself out there and take judgement, but when you do, it’s so freeing. You just stop caring what other people think and you just do things that make you happy… It’s the best feeling.”
The Inspiring Women Seriesis a podcast dedicated to sharing the many stories of women who have inspired me in my life, or who have inspired others.
The Don Valley Cable Car is just beginning community consultations at a time when Toronto’s SmartTrack transit plan is getting smaller and cheaper. Although the Don Valley Cable Car is being proposed as a method of connecting both tourists and residents with urban greenspace, rather than at connecting low-income communities with better transit access as Medellin does, it’s a reminder that alternative methods for urban transit are possible.
According to research from York University, there is a “transit inequity” in Toronto, as the people who are most dependent on public transit, particularly those living in low-income, inner-suburb neighbourhoods, referred to as “transit deserts,” get the worst service. The study suggests that more recent transit infrastructure expansions have primarily benefited the rich living in areas of the city which are already thriving, while neglecting the inner suburbs.
Ironically, I’m learning about the proposed Don Valley Cable Car immediately after spending most of the afternoon riding Medellin’s Metrocable. All of my previous knowledge about Medellin has come from watching Narcos: crime, drugs, violence and Pablo Escobar. So I’m surprised by the city’s innovative approach to public transit, for which it won the 2012 Sustainable Transport Award (tied with San Francisco, USA).
The Metrocable opened in 2004 in response to significant spatial inequalities in transit access in Medellin. It connects low-income neighbourhoods located in the surrounding mountains, many of which had high rates of violence and crime, with the city centre. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Transport Geography, found that the Metrocable has doubled access to employment opportunities for residents living in low-income neighbourhoods. Another report, found that the neighbourhoods affected by the Metrocable Line K experienced a 66% faster decline in homicide rates than in the control neighbourhood. (Although both violence and homicide rates decreased dramatically for both groups).
These studies suggest that expanding public transit through alternative means can transform a city’s poorest and most violent areas.
Medellin has also targeted several social interventions in the neighbourhoods linked with the Metrocable. This includes support for social housing, schools, micro-enterprise, libraries, and implementation of additional lighting in public spaces. In addition, the city has involved local residents in participatory budgeting to determine how to allocate the funds designated for investment in their neighbourhoods.
As the world’s first modern urban aerial cable car transport system, the Medellin Metrocable presents an inspiring vision for how a city’s transit plan can be re-imagined to create stronger, healthier communities, and better life-opportunities for its residents.
It is an example for cities, like Toronto, that bold visions for affordable and sustainable public transit are possible and are already being lived out in cities around the world.
I could hear the surprise my Mom’s voice as she reacted to the news that I had accepted a last-minute teaching position in Manizales, Colombia. She was right. “The plan” was to stay in Toronto where I had been living for the last year.
Since 2007, I had lived in seven different cities: Kingston, Ottawa, and Toronto, Ontario. Banff, Alberta. London, UK. Fort St. John, British Columbia. Pond Inlet, Nunavut. After years of being away from home, I was feeling a strong pull to put down roots in Toronto where I’d lived on and off since 2009.
However, things in Toronto weren’t really coming together as I’d hoped they would. By the end of the summer, I was feeling frustrated, heart-broken, and restless. So when my good friend messaged me out of the blue to tell me that her school in Manizales was looking for a grade five teacher, I began to wonder if life’s really meant to be lived according to a specific plan. As my friend reminded me, “Toronto will always be there”. Thus, I abandoned “the plan” and opted instead for a more uncertain path, the “the one less traveled” that Robert Frost wrote about.
Maybe the pressure to “have a plan” and follow a linear path prevents us from taking risks on the spontaneous opportunities that could lead us in the right direction (or maybe I’m just trying to justify a foolish decision).
This all being said, it was never part of my plan to live in Colombia, but here I am.