Jacqueline Markowitz has roots as a producer for radio and television commercials, but now she is writing full-time and running her own company, The Jam Press, offering literary and publishing services, based in Toronto. Last October, she published Conversations For Two, her first novel — what Markowitz describes as fiction from life — based on her older brother, John, who died decades ago, when she was 17.
“Twenty-five years after John’s death, I came into possession of a box of his writings in a most incredible way. I began to discover his life, to try and make sense of his death, and a book was born; one that I feel we wrote together,” says Markowitz. She adds that her book is a conversation between her and her brother — his voice resides in the poems, songs, and the words he left behind.
Markowitz spoke with Bookclub-in-a-Box about her writing process, the years of writing and revisions, and the highs and lows of self-publishing. (Buy Conversations For Two at Toronto’s Type Books, Page and Panel, at www.thejampress.com, or in ebook format on Amazon.)
Which aspects of the story in Conversations for Two are taken from your own life?
There are incidences in the story that have been borrowed or interpreted from my own life, but then it becomes the life of the narrator, her journey to explore. In this book, truth and fiction merge and mingle in the intricacies of the characters. There were eight years between my brother and me. I was a kid, and he was my cool big brother. I couldn’t possibly have had a window to his life at the time. I did, however feel that I got to know him as I wrote this book, or at least gained an idea of what his life might have looked like. It’s a story set in the early ’70s in Toronto. I got to write what it felt like to be part of the generation of peace and love!
It’s not a true story, although some of the story is based on a truth, and much of it is imagined, created, inspired by my brother’s words, triggered by his thoughts. The experience is considered through the lens of the narrator, her 17-year-old, and her mature self. It’s her attempt to understand why her brother died, to find answers, and somehow, acceptance.
How long did it take you to write this book, and what was your writing process like?
Well, it was more than 10 years… I wrote the first draft of the book so long ago — about two years after I discovered my brother’s writings. It has undergone two major revisions since that first version, two editors, and at least five years of workshops and courses. This last draft was the most significant, and I would say that it took me until now to truly become a writer. This last revision process was very powerful and deep. I worked with my editor over six months. It was a very intuitive, fluid relationship, and the results were astounding. I started writing at 6:00 a.m., every single day, and sometimes wrote at night as well. The story possessed me. And when I was done, I knew it in my bones. I had infused the book with every piece of me in the language, and within the characters that had found their life stories.
What were the challenges and benefits of not going through a traditional publisher for this book?
Well, before I took on this last revision, I had sent the manuscript to a handful of Canadian publishers whose platforms seemed to be in line with my book. I received some really lovely rejection letters. Seriously! I mean this. Publishers don’t have to write you a personal response to your submissions. I got some notes that were very complimentary and encouraging. I do believe that with my latest revision, had I persevered, I would have found a publisher.
But I didn’t want to wait another two years, which is at least what it would have been by the time I went through the submission process. I had put so much work into the writing, poured over every single word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter, and by this point had such a vision for how the book should look that I just had to publish it myself.
I found an unbelievable book designer who understood what I wanted, and together we created a very beautiful book. We paid attention to the cover design, font, the typesetting — it’s important to consider how the words are going to look on each page, how they fit between the margins, how my brother’s poetry was integrated into the book, and the character of the paper, all of which felt significant to the story.
I used to think there was such a stigma about being self-published, but I have wholeheartedly changed my tune. I am so proud of Conversations for Two, the dedication to the art of writing and publishing. But it is a struggle to get your book out there without the backing of a big, widely renowned publishing company. There are heavy doors to open. It takes a lot of work and perseverance. And you are also making a personal financial commitment, so you have a lot of skin in the game. I definitely feel like I am charting new ground, and in many ways it is incredibly enticing and empowering.
What authors or books are you inspired by?
Anne Michaels. I have read Fugitive Pieces three times and some passages out loud. Her writing is exquisite.
Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer. It’s my feel-good place. I’m swept away in the forest.
Joan Didion, because she is so brave.
I read Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life and A God in Ruins back to back, and was awestruck by her craft. How she wove this story and made sense of all the time changes was amazing.
Tan Twan Eng’s Garden of the Evening Mist features such masterful storytelling and language.
Do you have any other writing projects planned for the future?
I write a blog, Recipe For Life Club, which shares reflections, stories, and bits and pieces and details of life relevant to women of my vintage. I want to make this into a book, and have some really fun events coming up this fall where I will be talking to women, sharing stories, and of course, recipes! As I mentioned, when I published my book, I created a publishing company, The Jam Press. We offer a terrific line up of literary and publishing services. I so strongly believe in the power of our stories, and that there are many women, like me, who have a story to tell, and need support to make it happen. I want to help women find their voice and encourage their publishing journey. I will also be at Word on the Street Toronto this fall. So, come visit me!