There was a reason why I named my first zine “melt the snow” back in high school. I’m sure part of it is genetic – both my parents grew up in hot climates. Then I moved to Montreal where winters are snowier and colder and longer than those in Toronto, and instead of hating every minute of it, I realized that it wasn’t so bad. Winter is good for hunkering down and writing lots of words and cooking many pots of soup. Walking through a snowstorm when you’re bundled up in a parka and listening to music? Lovely. But I’ve never graduated to the levels of those who make the most out of winter by skiing or snowboarding. I’ve tried a few times; I fell a lot.
A few weeks ago a copy of Lisa McGonigle’s Snowdrift came in the mail. It’s her memoir of trading a full scholarship to Oxford for the ski bum life in the Kootenays in British Columbia. While I was reading her descriptions of skiing and snowboarding, I got it. Even her descriptions of the injuries sustained on the hill sound purposeful or at least hilarious. That’s the thing about this book: it doesn’t matter what your feelings are about skiing or snow, Lisa’s voice carries the book through. It originated from a series of emails she sent to her friends, so it has a comfy, conversational tone to it. She also doesn’t just talk about BC – there are forays to New Zealand, Quebec, back to Ireland. And she covers hiking, running and baking too.
Snowdrift was published by Oolichan Books. Lisa is currently completing her PhD in New Zealand, but we coordinated our schedules to talk on Gchat about the book. It also happened to be St. Patrick’s Day, which is appropriate considering that she’s Irish. Our conversation focused on some of the quirks particular to publishing a memoir and, because I thought it was interesting, her current school work. Lisa’s an overall interesting person, and I think you get a sense of that through this exchange.
In which I make a big deal about the time difference
Teri: You’re in the future!
Lisa: Tell me about it. When I flew from Auckland to L.A. recently I disrupted the space-time continuum: I left Auckland at 7pm on January 20th and arrived into L.A. at 10am on January 20th.
Teri: In your future it’s now St. Patrick’s Day. Have you started celebrating?
Lisa: It’s a very muted affair for genuine, real-life Irish people, but second-generation Irish and beyond seem to love it. Last year in Dublin for St Patrick’s Day I went for a run, had coffee with my friends and then had dinner with my grandparents.
Teri: How will you celebrate in New Zealand today?
Lisa: Right now I’m in uni writing up a chapter about institutional abuse in the Catholic Church. Then I’ll go to my part-time job subediting the student paper. Then I’ll go to bed.
Teri: I sense a distinct lack of green beer.
Lisa: Tomorrow I’m heading away to a “bach” (as Kiwis call holiday homes) with Lindsay and Chucky, and assorted other ski-bum friends. And the leftover Fireball.
Teri: Lindsay and Chucky! Now that I’ve read your book, I feel like I know them too.
In which Lisa discusses reactions to Snowdrift
Teri: How does it feel now that the book is out there? I remember emailing with you when you were editing the manuscript – you were a little nervous.
Lisa: I kept dreaming about natural disasters and, alas, while my subconscious is no longer plagued by such worries, they appear to have been loosed upon the world in “real life”. Now that the book is out? I suppose in a way I’m lucky in that I’m over in New Zealand, so I’m very much at a remove. It would probably be different if I was actually in Canada, and it was in bookstores.
Teri: What have your friends’ reactions been like?
Lisa: They’ve been great! Because the book is non-fiction, I was slightly worried about how the major characters (Lindsay, Chucky, Ellie, Kris) would respond, but I told them that if there’s anything they don’t like, speak now and they can get pseudonyms if there’s ever a future print run. One girl said that’s she’s NEVER seen her boyfriend read a book, but he sat on the couch engrossed in Snowdrift. He’s one of the ski-bums in the book so that meant a lot. Of course, as my teenage boyfriend said when he got in touch to say he enjoyed it, “I’d hardly tell you if I thought it was shite”.
Teri: Heh… thanks?
Lisa: Aforementioned teenage boyfriend also said, “I stayed up reading it past midnight, and I haven’t done that with a book since Danny the Champion of the World.”
Teri: That’s a blurb-worthy compliment! What about your family?
Lisa: That’s been hilarious as well. My mum just said she enjoyed it. My great-aunt who’s an 80 year old nun said she enjoyed the “racy style” and passed it onto her fellow nun, Sr Janet, to read. My 82 year old grandfather said he saw a whole new side to me. My friend’s mum rang her after reading it and said “What’s MDMA?” It’s a multi-generational learning experience
Teri: Anyone from your Oxford days read it? I just read Geoff Dyer book where he insists on calling Oxford “Dullsford”.
Lisa: Not that I’ve heard of so far, though one guy joked that they were going to get a copy for the Middle Common Room, the grad student social area. It would certainly be interesting to see what they think of it. I also feel like I’m treading on eggshells a bit as to how I depicted Kiwis in it and my unequivocally negative appraisal of Wanaka, but it would have been disingenuous of me to pretend I absolutely loved it there in Wanaka or anything.
Teri: And now that you’re living back in New Zealand to complete your PhD….
Lisa: Exactly. In my next book I may have to atone for referring to Kiwis as a “shower of wankers”. Sorry guys. The thing is, yes, I am critical of lots of places and things in the book, but I was in no one’s purchase when I was writing it and I certainly wasn’t being employed by any tourist boards or anything. I was just writing to my friends in entirely frank and honest fashion, for better or for worse.
Teri: I don’t think the book would’ve worked otherwise.
On dream publishing deals
Teri: You had a kind of dream book publishing deal: you read at the Fernie Writer’s Conference and then Oolichan approached you? No queries and self addressed stamped envelopes!
Lisa: Yes, dream publishing deal indeed! I read at the FWC and met with Ron Smith (who was running Oolichan at the time) the following day. I sent off the MS the following week and got an email a few months later saying they were happy to publish it.
Teri: Fernie sounds like a magical place
Lisa: Oh it is. I think of all the things I’m proudest of with Snowdrift was the line on page 48: “these are precious days, my friends, in a special, special place”. That wasn’t added in afterwards or anything, even at the time I was aware of what an amazing place at was at just the right stage in my life and that of my friends. Perfect synergy of place and people and life stage
Teri: It really comes through in the book; it has an energy. If you don’t mind my new ageyness.
Lisa: Not at all! Thank you! The vibe, man, the vibe.
On hitting the books, not slopes
Teri: So tell me a little about school – in Snowdrift, you made a big decision to pull out of full scholarship from Oxford. Now that you’re back at it in New Zealand, how is it going?
Lisa: I’m approaching it like marathon training. If you just thought “oh my God I’ve to run 42kms!” you’d freak out. It’s similar with a PhD, thinking “okay, I just need to write this chapter” or “okay I just need to research this thing”. I said to someone recently my mantra is “one day at a time”, as if I’m a recovering alcoholic.
Teri: I know you’re coming to Montreal in the summer to present a paper relating to your studies. What is it exactly?
Lisa: I’m going to give a paper about Irish pop music and the Catholic Church at Concordia.
Teri: I can’t think of Irish pop music… other than like, U2 And, um, B*Witched.
Lisa: It’s this guy called Brian McFadden, used to be in Westlife, and then released this song called “Irish Son” about institutional abuse in the Catholic Church. Elton John called it “the worst lyrics I’d ever heard…I had to take it off in case I committed suicide”.
Teri: Okay, definitely not B-Witched. So, your PhD work is indeed darker than Snowdrift.
Lisa: That’s one way of putting it.
Teri: Is it tough writing about abuse?
Lisa: Yes. I definitely get very angry towards the Catholic Church and how the abuse allegations were handled. The more I learn about the Catholic Church, the less time I have for it as an institution. Same with Catholic doctrine.
Teri: Well, it sounds like important work and I’m glad that you’re working on it.
Lisa: Chur, as they say in New Zealand! It means “thanks”. Check me and my cultural assimilation!
And an even heartier chur to Lisa, for doing this chat with me!
Be sure to order her book via Amazon or contact Oolichan.