Sheila Murray | Issue 24
I won’t pretend that I didn’t have fantasies about the book being noticed. But to have them actualized is something else.
Writing is focused time that allows ideas to evolve, words to shape meaning. When it’s going well, we’re in what psychologists call flow, time spent without concern for all the daily bits and pieces that pull, poke, and drag us into distraction. While we’re there, it’s all about the process, or at least so long as the work progresses. -Sheila Murray
I’m writing this as the Canada Reads longlist is announced. My debut novel, Finding Edward, is on it, and I’m amazed. Who knew!
I won’t pretend that I didn’t have fantasies about the book being noticed. But to have them actualized is something else. I’m sure that all writers ready themselves for attention once their book is published. I also know that so many books fly under the literary radar attracting little attention, slowly fading to disappointment. I was prepared for that. I’d acknowledged that holding the physical book in my hand would be achievement enough.
I started writing Finding Edward more than ten years ago. It went through three significant rewrites, and I sent it to several agents, two of whom were intrigued by the synopsis and enthusiastic about reading the manuscript. Both lost interest pretty quickly. A third agent who had generously agreed to meet me offered advice. He kindly explained that he couldn’t sell a book with two narrative perspectives because readers would always prefer one character over the other. His junior reader liked my younger character, Cyril. He claimed to like the older, Edward. He recommended a rewrite that would have changed the book entirely, since its central story is of one character’s search for the other. As he told me, book selling is a business.
I sent the manuscript to a number of publishers: all declined. It continued to languish until the day a good friend of mine met Marc Cote of Cormorant Books for lunch. Marc, who would become my editor and publisher, asked to read the manuscript, and even before he’d finished reading, wrote to say that he wanted to publish it. And not only that, he said it was very good. I was thrilled. Finally! Even so, it was nearly two years until its publication in June 2022. The years pile up.
For many reasons Marc’s commitment in 2020 came at exactly the right time. It was just a few months after my partner died. We had spent more than a year in hospitals. Michael facing down cancer. Both of us letting go. As the reality of a terminal illness sets in, some of what’s lost is a future — absolutely for Michael. For me, life became foggy. I was numb and found it hard to unstick myself from those last weeks with him. I couldn’t see far into the past, and the future had lost its meaning. I felt that one of the few ways forward was to write, that’s how I make sense of myself. Marc’s commitment was an immediate starting point. He had editorial notes.
Writing is focused time that allows ideas to evolve, words to shape meaning. When it’s going well, we’re in what psychologists call flow, time spent without concern for all the daily bits and pieces that pull, poke, and drag us into distraction. While we’re there, it’s all about the process, or at least so long as the work progresses.
When Marc said yes, he asked me for more: more from the minor characters, more Black history, more Cyril and Edward. That’s when what I was trying to say with the story became truly important. I had to be sure that its central themes and questions, what mattered most to me, were still relevant after all the years. And that they were fully present in the book. Marc’s notes turned out to be exactly right. It seems so obvious, but the better you know a character, the more real they become. Turns out there’s always more to learn from them.
When I started the book, I wanted to explore the experience of being mixed race in Canada. My father was Black Jamaican, my mother white English. I was born and raised in England. My teenage cultural references have more to do with Doctor Who than with reggae, although we all loved Bob Marley.
In its first draft, Finding Edward was a story told through six characters, variously white, BIPOC, male and female, old and young. A grab bag of folk — all of them good people — a representative Toronto mix. Further edits left me with only two: Cyril, a mixed-race young man who immigrates to Toronto in 2012, and Edward, also mixed race, born in Toronto in the early 1920s. More edits as the book evolved. And, finally, a draft that I knew was almost there.
Finding Edward is not autobiographical, but its themes are mine. I immigrated to Toronto and lived there for more than 40 years. I love Jamaica where I have never lived but have spent lots of time. I care deeply about racial justice; social justice. Equity should be a paramount goal. I know that the natural world is precious, to be cherished, nurtured and protected: our reckless use of fossil fuels accelerates climate change and puts all of it, and us, at great risk. This last theme is absent from the story — Cyril would have understood and been sympathetic, but it wouldn’t be a priority. Edward would never have given it a thought.
Since publication, I’ve learned that I love to talk about the book, its themes and its characters. My greatest pleasure is in talking with readers who have found connections to the book and want to tell me about them. That’s the great reward. I would never have guessed at the wide range of people who engage with the book.
And the literary accolades are as important. Although they don’t necessarily bring what I’d imagined. Following my Governor General’s nomination and making the Canada Reads longlist, I was asked by their respective publicists about my availability for interviews. Nobody called. Not for me, anyway. But I get to recite those achievements for as long as I want. I am truly grateful.
I’m also glad to be living in Hamilton, Ontario. At a little over half a million people, it’s neither small, nor large. Big enough to have a vibrant literary scene. Intimate enough to be inclusive, welcoming, and to cheer the accomplishments of its writers.
Publication has been a great experience, but it will fade. Nothing lasts. It is too late for me to make a career of writing; I don’t have enough time ahead of me. But I can, with confidence, call myself a writer. I know that I will continue to write, and that the work has to feel urgent. I want to spend time exploring a world that isn’t necessarily of my own direct experience but is tangible, accessible, and important. And finally, if I write something as good as Finding Edward, will it get noticed? Who knows?
Sheila Murray's debut novel, Finding Edward, was a finalist for the 2022 Governor General's Literary Awards and a longlist nominee for Canada Reads 2023. It was a 2022 Globe and Mail Best Book, CBC Best Canadian Fiction, 49th Shelf best book, and listed in Toronto Star’s best books gift guide. Her short fiction has appeared in many Canadian literary journals. Sheila has worked in the non-profit sector since 2009, and leads a grassroots, volunteer-driven initiative that engages urban residents in adapting to local climate change impacts. Visit Sheila Murray’s website.
Finding Edward: A Novel by Sheila Murray Cormorant Books, 2022
Cyril Rowntree migrates to Toronto from Jamaica in 2012. Managing a precarious balance of work and university he begins to navigate his way through the implications of being racialized in his challenging new land.
A chance encounter with a panhandler named Patricia leads Cyril to a suitcase full of photographs and letters dating back to the early 1920s. Cyril is drawn into the letters and their story of a white mother’s struggle with the need to give up her mixed race baby, Edward. Abandoned by his own white father as a small child, Cyril’s keen intuition triggers a strong connection and he begins to look for the rest of Edward’s story.
As he searches, Cyril unearths fragments of Edward’s itinerant life as he crisscrossed the country. Along the way, he discovers hidden pieces of Canada’s Black history and gains the confidence to take on his new world.
“In lucid, scintillating prose, suffused with mystery and everyday magic, Sheila Murray delivers one of the most penetrating dramas of Black experience in all of Canadian literature. This tale of a lonely Jamaican student enrolled at Ryerson University follows his obsession with the life of a struggling Black boy in Depression-era Toronto. A parallel portrait of two Black bi-racial men, Finding Edward expands to enfold a sweeping history of Blacks in Canada. This beautiful, necessary novel will become a touchstone.”
— Donna Bailey Nurse, author of What’s a Black Critic to Do?
“Murray’s rich narrative offers mystery, but it also spans decades of Canadian history, differentiating Finding Edward from the typical immigrant story. The prospect of better understanding Edward’s life in Canada offers Cyril an escape from his own excruciating isolation. Murray triumphs in capturing the undeniable and unmistakable ache of severe loneliness.” — Quill & Quire
Issue #24 of Send My Love to Anyone
On Writing and Word Counts by Alex Leslie
Why I Start a New Writing Project Before I Finish My Current One by Kathryn Mockler
Sign up for Where Do I Start? | Writing Prompts by Kathryn Mockler
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