Dorothy Ellen Palmer

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Like Jordan in her novel, Dorothy Ellen Palmer was likely conceived during Hurricane Hazel and adopted at age three. She grew up in and near Toronto and spent summers in Ontario’s cottage country, just north of Fenelon Falls. In her 23 years as a drama/English teacher, Dorothy taught in a Mennonite colony, a four-room schoolhouse in rural Alberta and an adult learning centre attached to a prison. She coaches for the Canadian Improv Games. When Fenelon Falls is her first novel. She lives in Toronto.

Please send your questions and comments for Dorothy to writer@openbooktoronto.com

On Writing, with Dorothy Ellen Palmer


Dorothy Ellen Palmer is Open Book's October 2011 writer in residence.

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your book, When Fenelon Falls.

Dorothy Ellen Palmer:

When Fenelon Falls is the very Canadian story of a hurricane, a bastard and a bear. In the summer of 1969, the summer of Chappaquiddick, the moon landing, Helter Skelter and Woodstock, 14-year-old disabled bastard and genius Jordan May March is trapped at her family cottage just outside Fenelon Falls. She spends that summer memorizing CHUM Charts, plotting to free Yogi, a black bear tourist attraction caged at the top of March Road, and seeking revenge on her bulling cousin Derwood. In secret in her diary, using the scant details of her adoption from her Non-Identifying Information from Toronto Children’s Aid, she has written her own creation stories: “100 Hazels,” all interwoven versions of her illicit conception on the night in 1954 when Hurricane Hazel tore Toronto to shreds. A “Hazel” forms every third chapter in the novel, as Jordan fantasizes about her conception at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, or the CNE Horse Palace, and imagines such parents as an unstable farm girl, JFK, Louisa May Alcott, Perry Mason and the Queen of England. When bear-baiting cousin Derwood finds her diary, he shifts his tortures from Yogi to Jordan. As caged as Yogi, Jordan is drawn to desperate measures.

When Fenelon Falls

By Dorothy Ellen Palmer

From the publisher's website: A spaceship hurtles towards the moon, hippies gather at Woodstock, Charles Manson leads a cult into murder and a Kennedy drives off a Chappaquiddick dock: it’s the summer of 1969. And as mankind takes its giant leap, Jordan May March, disabled bastard and genius, age fourteen, limps and schemes her way towards adulthood. Trapped at the March family’s cottage, she spends her days memorizing Top 40 lists, avoiding her adoptive cousins, catching frogs and plotting to save Yogi, the bullied, buttertart-eating bear caged at the top of March Road.

Recent Writer In Residence Posts

The National Forum on the Literary Arts: Too Few Knights, Two Growing Dragons.

In any evaluation, the view contains the viewer in both meanings of the word contain: it includes the viewer; it limits the viewer. It is with these caveats that I can finally bring myself to evaluate The Canada Council Forum on the Literary Arts, held last month in Montreal. The Forum assembled a wide range of stakeholders who would not normally have time, reason, or opportunity to be together. Some 200 folks — authors, publishers, agents, bloggers, editors, reviewers — met to discuss the future of Canadian Creation, Production, Dissemination and Sustainability.

Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Signs

Why is a reclusive 19th century fictional character — a misogynist, social misfit and dope fiend — enjoying blockbuster popularity in 2013? Can his resurgent longevity be analyzed and reproduced? If Sherlock Holmes has become a sign, what does he signify? Over a century since his 1887 “birth” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes remains the most enduring and resilient of literary icons.

The Last Post

It’s hard to believe that the entire month of October has gone by and this is my last post as Open Book Writer in Residence! I've enjoyed and respected the experience and it’s certainly given me new respect for bloggers and daily columnists who need to produce, not fiction, but a developed opinion every day. In this, the 31st post on October 31, I’m glad to say I met my self-set goal of posting every single day. My WIR file contains 27,000 words, or about some 900 words per day. If only I could do that all the time with my own work!

Wouldn't you love to know?

Saturday’s closing day of the IFOA made for some extraodinary readings and some very busy folks. While most writers dream about what it would be like to ever be nominated for even one literary award, ever in their lifetime, this year three Canadian writers, Esi Edugyan, David Bezmozgis and Patrick deWitt, all still young with their full careers ahead of them, have had the overwhelming honor to be nominated for several. Saturday was indeed a day of congratulations and celebrations.

The Top Ten Tips of a Writer's Routine

I’ll be spending all day at the closing events of IFOA, but this morning I thought I’d address the one question I’m asked more than any other: “What is your writing routine?” I’ll admit that at first, I balked. I wanted to say everyone has to find their own routine, based on their physiology, their work, family, and commitment schedules. But I’ve also discovered that regardless of the time of day, there are some things I routinely do to build my writing mindset. Here are the Top Ten Tips to avoid the distractions of a busy daily life, to maintain a train of thought and make writing time more profitable.

Piggy Logan's Dolls

On Wednesday night, I attended the IFOA reading of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize Finalists. In welcoming ambiance, the Brigantine room at Harbourfront was transformed by café tables and candles. As at Monday’s GG Awards, I was again struck by the sheer range of the works, but also got an answer to a new question, “At an awards reading, what should we hope for besides literary excellence?”

Consider the the diversity of life and language, of time and place, of character and style, in this list of finalists:

The Meager Tarmac, by Clark Blaise
The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt
Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan
The Quiet Twin, by Dan Vyleta

Alissa York Answers These Questions Three

The ongoing discussion here in my blog of the possible role for literature in a world that desperately needs empathy, began almost a month ago now with one of my first posts about my trip to the Eden Mills Writers' Festival with Alissa York. I’m thrilled that despite her mega-busy schedule traveling to France and Banff and being nominated for the Toronto Book Awards, that she has kindly also found the time to answer These Questions Three.

With Coffee and an Explanation in Hand

With great respect for the time and care they took, I'm devoting today’s blog to the readers who posted to my earlier entry, In Search of Coffee and Bad Writing. I truly believe the pressing question of the role of politics in literature needs to be discussed openly and often. I respect their willingness to do so exactly because, first and foremost, it is a debate. The question is neither over nor answered. Every reader and writer has input and a voice worth hearing.

Surveying the rich field of the Govenor General's Literary Award

Last night I had the pleasure of attending an IFOA reading of the Governor General’s Literary Award finalists: David Bezmozgis, Marina Endicott, Alexi Zentner, Patrick deWitt and Esi Edugyan, all warmly hosted by CBC's Shelagh Rogers. In retrospect this morning, I am struck not just by how richly diverse this field we call Canadian Literature has become, but also that such depth and breadth of change has occurred in my lifetime.

A Thank You to Bharati Mukherjee Twenty-five Years in the Making

Twenty-five years is a long time to repay a kindness, but being able to finally publicly thank Bharati Mukherjee is something I’m very grateful to be able to do at all. In Calgary, in 1986, I took a workshop with her that I still think about, one that gave me sustenance for many years and taught me something essential about teaching.

I had a Vice Principal years later who believed that teachers are their student’s first books, that students learn as much from teacher role models as from books; they learn about character, fairness, kindness, respect, good judgment, industry, and curiosity. I would absolutely say this was true in my time with Bharati. There are two moments I remember so clearly.

In Search of Coffee and Bad Fiction

Yesterday afternoon, with friends both old and new, I attended an IFOA roundtable discussion, Individual in Society, moderated by Carol Off, with Lauren B. Davis, Johan Harstad and Bharati Mukherjee. This event was unequivocally intelligent, informative and smartly entertaining. It produced some great sound-bites on writing. In retrospect, however, I find myself with questions about Canadian politeness and wondering how to ensure that roundtables live up to the potential of their billing.

Brown Paper Packages Wrapped up in String...

In The Sound of Music, when Julie Andrews sings that one of her favourite things is “Brown paper packages,” she doesn’t mean a blog, but I do. Niranjana Iyer’s blog Brown Paper is indeed one of my favourite packages of literary insight, no strings attached. When I open it, I can always find books that may be missing from elsewhere and can always count on hearing a refreshingly unapologetic feminist voice. My thanks to her for These Questions Three.

1. When we first met a few months ago, I was fascinated by your back story. Can you please explain a little bit about how you got to there from here? Please feel free to define “here” and “there” in any way you wish.

An Empty Chair in the True North Strong and Free is Still Empty

In yesterday’s post about the empty chair at the IFOA reserved for jailed Iranian writer Nasrin Sotoudeh, I put forth the position that writing is first and foremost a political act. This is not a fashionable position here in Canada, ironically except when examining countries other than our own.

When an Empty Chair Speaks Louder than Words

The International Festival of Authors opens today. It’s time to see the empty chair.

Symbolic in its silence, one sits on stage at every IFOA event in recognition of a writer currently in exile, in danger, or in prison, for his or her beliefs. For me, the empty chair is testament to the fact that all writing is first and foremost a political act. It’s like a poppy for me, a visible remembrance of war, of lives lost for no other reason than exercising rights we take so easily for granted in Canada, or at least until the G20 — free thought, free speech and the exquisite freedom to read and write without fear.

This Blog is Alive with the Sound of Mutants

How does one wrestle the art of improvisation to paper? Improv by definition is a verbal and physical 3-D art form, born of, and alive in, the spontaneous moment. The essentially 2-D written page is flat, slow, neither verbal, physical, nor alive, and silent except in one's head. And in extra complication, in the daily construction of Kerfuffle, I'm also trying to include the interior voices of the players and the over-arcing theoretical voice of Blakkat. It's a game within a game: the troupe is playing "Talking George" on stage and their show is a scene in the larger game of "Meanwhile" that structures the novel. It's a window out and a window in; readers see and hear the show and see and hear what the improvisers are thinking as they justify their choices.

Nothing like a Poke in the Eye with a Big Smurf

One of the challenges I've set for myself in Kerfuffle is to give the reader an insider's view of improv and to do so in a way that blends form and content. Just as Toni Morrison set out in Jazz to bring that musical form to paper, I'm trying to structure my novel like an improv game with quick scenes leaping back and forth in time and space. In order to introduce you to Andy, the youngest and newest member of the troupe, I’ve taken three first drafts of my favourite leaps and strung them together. You need to know that Andy lives alone with his mom in a tiny house on Carlaw Street with a front porch chock full of a bevy of blue garden gnomes, wanna-be Smurfs that he swears multiply faster than the Octomom.

Meanwhile, back at the door Andy keeps closed…

Time to Occupy Ourselves Elsewhere

It’s taken a few days before I could write about Occupy Toronto. Obviously, once I set Kerfuffle in the G20, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about protests, their genesis, justifications and efficacies. You can't write such a novel without challenging your own politics, so I’ve been very curious about what kinds of parallels and contradictions would develop between the two events. While political pundits far wiser than I have already analyzed that six ways to Sunday, I offer my own writerly rant here. Please remember it comes from a lifelong lefty feminist with a B.A. in Social History, one who put in time on picket lines and demonstrations. Maybe I’m getting old and crusty. Maybe I'm getting older and smarter. Up to you.

When Fenelon Falls meets Thomas Wolfe

As I kid, I remember once watching a TV documentary on the process of creation. An artist picked up a multicolored stone and knew they were going to use the colour, shape, feel, weight and aura of that stone to inspire a painting. Sometimes a place can be a stone.

The place that inspired my first novel, When Fenelon Falls, was largely real. Like Jordan's skinny little dock and at the far right corner of this photo, Peace's Point, the finish line for her victorious Cross the Bay Swim, most of the novel's landmarks are entirely real.

This is the main street of Fenelon Falls, still unchanged today, the Palmer Electric store being merely a happy coincidence and no relation.

James and the Giant Peach of a Blog

Writers can't read everything, so it is important to find bloggers we can trust to do the kind of analysis that assists us in our work. While there are many excellent longstanding Canadian book bloggers, I want to showcase some new voices and support the blend of the literary and the academic that I've found in two exciting relatively new Canadian bloggers. First up is James Onusko with his blog at jamesonusko.com. I asked James These Questions Three:

Nobody owns a cat

October 14th: Fourteenth Post

Meanwhile, back at Blakkat Theatre…

Our Blakkat is one proud feline, despite being a worn and somewhat tawdry fallen lady. She’s a failed Queen Street nail salon, transformed into a theatre by dint of volunteer goodwill and the cheapest of make-do accoutrements from Goodwill. She isn’t much to look at, but a second home seldom is and never needs to be. She’s been round a block or two and scrapped in more than one dark alley. She needs a flea bath and a good lick of paint. She smells. But it’s a musty energy, of industry, sweat and song, one that bears the warmth of laughter and the whiff of camaraderie, even when her players and you, her audience, have left the building.

The Thirteenth is Magic!

October 13th: Thirteenth Post

I was ready to post today about something else entirely, but as just as I typed the date I had one of those "Aha!" moments so beloved by Oprah, moments that I have learned to listen to carefully as a writer.

Into my head unbidden sprung the title one of my favourite books as a kid, The 13th is Magic, by Joan Howard (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1950). After a half hour's online research and reminiscing, I realized that that this book may have cast some long-lasting subliminal magic on my psyche that has appeared only now, decades later, as I’m trying to conjure up Kerfuffle.

When Nellie met Excalibur

October 12th:Twelfth Post

Today I thought I'd introduce you to another member of Kerfuffle, Sherman's improvising troupe-mate, Nellie Wolfe. Named after my grandmother and my favourite writer, Thomas Wolfe, she's 29, disabled, unmarried, pregnant with twins and plotting revenge with the aid a talking sword. I hope you enjoy the first draft of the opening scene of the novel.

Day One: Thursday, June 24, 2010, wherein roles are established and offers made
Enter Player One: NELLIE WOLFE, age 29, museum docent and founding member of Kerfuffle

“Behold the once and future sting! Take me up; cast me away!”

These Questions Three with Robin Maharaj

October 11th: Eleventh Post

In a rather unusual coincidence, Robin Maharaj and I both taught English for several years in the same Pickering high school, Pine Ridge Secondary, seated a few seats apart in the same workroom. I’m fascinated by the connections and disconnections between teaching and writing, and truly appreciate his answers to These Questions Three.

Ten Things This Writer is Thankful for This Year

October 10th: Tenth Post

10. October is launch month and there’s so much delicious new writing out there to be sampled and devoured.

9. My daughter not only read something I wrote, she liked it! On Facebook even!

8. My Acer notebook is tiny, light, never unbalances me and fits into my purse. It’s portable by both able-bodied and disabled definitions of the word. A real treat.

7. On this sun-bountiful weekend imported straight from July, I will go outside to read.

6. It’s as sunny as that magnificent day a few weeks ago at Word on the Street, when I had the privilege to share a panel with another alumnus from the Humber School of Writers, the amazing Julie Booker, a role model to us all, as she’s still writing with twins!

A Little Munday on Sunday

October 9th: Ninth Post

Just over a week ago, I had the pleasure of attending the jam-packed launch of Evan Munday’s new YA novel, The Dead Kid Detective Agency, published by ECW Press. On that night, Evan got to wear two hats as Coach House Press Publicist and first-time novelist. (He wore one shirt and one tie, both of which reflected his unique haberdashery, but sadly neither of which were gingham.) I asked Mr. Munday These Questions Three:

These Questions Three: It was Thirty Years Ago (and Three)

October 8th: Eighth Post

Some thirty-three years ago, I lived in a large, dilapidated Victorian house on Bute Street in Vancouver. It was a dynamic household, a bevy of twenty-something feminists, representative of a larger Vancouver network of very talented women, many of whom have gone on to have vital and divergent careers.

Today the Other Side We See: Introducing These Questions Three

October 7th: Seventh Post

That’s not a breeze — it’s the sound of the Ontario rainbow, thankfully composed today of any colour but blue, heaving a collective four-year sigh of relief! As for the lowest-on-record 47.6 % voter turn out in the midst of a global economic collapse, that’s the most sobering vote of all.

But a victory of any kind creates a much kinder Ontario than we could have woken up into this morning, so it’s time for a little celebratory fun. In tribute to one of the greatest comedy troupes ever to grace the planet, I’m going to be interviewing several of my friends and colleagues by borrowing the concept of These Questions Three from the iconic Scene 23 of Monty Python’s The Search for the Holy Grail.

Please Don't Read This!

October 6th: Sixth Post

Please don’t read this if you haven’t voted or haven’t made unbreakable plans to vote.

There’s nothing more important you should be doing today, so drop whatever you’re doing and get thee to a polling station! Just vote. That’s it, that’s all. Today, that’s everything.

If you’re still reading and you aren’t in either category A or B above, then shame on you.

On Empathy and Elections

October 5th: Fifth Post

On the eve of our provincial election, I’m still thinking about empathy. In Rob Ford’s Ontario and Stephen Harper’s Canada, I can think of no more persuasive and compelling argument to vote than this profoundly empathetic passage from writer, activist and Noble Prize winner, Doris Lessing.

It’s something I used professionally in all my years of teaching, as advice to young artists both writers and actors, and a credo I’ve returned to again and again in my personal life. It's over fifty years old now, but still a most fitting reminder for today, and especially for tomorrow.

Eden Mills, Alissa York and the Brooklyn Bridge

Tuesday, October 4th: Fourth Blog

Eden Mills has always been one of my favourite literary festivals. As a rookie, I can still admit to being a little star struck at the opportunity to hear Lorna Crozier, Dionne Brand, Priscila Uppal and John Valiant, not to mention be introduced to Alison Pick, Johanna Skibsrud and the legendary Leon Rooke. But when I think about the experience of Eden Mills, it’s not just the extraordinary quality of its writers. It’s not just the charming sincerity of the town, so determined to reduce its carbon footprint and be responsible to the planet. It’s the quality of the crowd. It’s the sense of informed community. Eden Mills has an ambiance unlike any other festival; it feels so welcoming, so open, so uniquely supportive.

Why Jesus Toast?

Monday, October 3rd: Third Post

Why does Sherman Estes Silverstein, one of the five members of the improv troupe named Kerfuffle, secretly sell Jesus Toast? Why not? That’s the first most obvious, if somewhat flippant, answer. It’s timely and topical. It’s utterly absurd yet still resonant and metaphoric. Selling Jesus toast on-line is the perfect manifestation of the futility that a thwarted creative intellect like Sherman feels in 2010 when there seems no other way out of the predicament of his impending unemployment. And, if I don’t say so myself, it’s a bloody brilliant answer.

Who Makes Jesus Toast for a Living?

Sunday, October 2nd: Second Post
Good Sunday Morning, Toronto!

While I won’t always address yesterday's Top Ten List in order, today I'm going to cross off #10 and introduce you to Sherman Silverstein, the man who makes Jesus Toast for a living.

Sherm has been laid off from his job as a Large Animal Vet’s Assistant at the Toronto Zoo, but can’t bring himself to break the news to his already unhappy pregnant wife. His improv troupe is about to lose one of its members. The G20 has turned the city he loves into an armed camp. He's hours away from turning thirty. His response gives new meaning to the term “comfort food.” I hope you enjoy the first segment of the first draft of my novel in progress, Kerfuffle.

Meanwhile, back at Sherm’s toaster…

October 1st and first blog

Good Saturday Morning, Toronto!
And Happy Birthday to Ms. Julie Andrews, 76 years young today!

I’m delighted to think that as you reached for your well-deserved second cup of coffee on this gray October morning, you also thought to reach for Open Book where for the next thirty-one days, I’ll be privileged to share with you so many of my own favourite things.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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