A new book by Gibsons-based author Lenore Rowntree defies the traditional classifications of novel or short story collection. See You Later Maybe Never presents readers with a series of linked tales that roam the landscape of its protagonist’s lifetime.
Rowntree released the book last month with a launch party at Frankie’s Jazz Club in Vancouver, where she lives part-time. Originally from Toronto, Rowntree migrated to the West Coast in the late 1970s and became a Sunshine Coast resident seven years ago.
“It’s funny how you always feel like a bit of a newcomer whenever it’s not the town you’re born in,” she observed in an interview with Coast Reporter. “It’s one of the things I tackled in the book. Central Canadians always look to the west as if it’s going to be Nirvana, the solution for everything. In fact, it’s life. It’s good and it’s bad. I still kind of have that little separation in my head.”
Concerns about separation run through See You Later Maybe Never, whose variegated plots revolve around Vanessa, a veteran of Toronto’s fashion industry uneasily navigating her transition to retirement and elderhood.
Vanessa’s husband Tom, a retired school principal, is infuriatingly imperturbable at the onset of senior citizenry. Vanessa, however, seeks creative outlets to assuage hurtful losses (“I never wanted kids and now I know why,” her mother tells her during a childhood Thanksgiving.)
“Vanessa is not me, but I would be disingenuous if I said I didn’t admit to having some of the same thoughts as her from time to time,” said Rowntree. “When I wrote the first story I was in my 60s and I was kind of unsettled and pissed off with aging. Now that it’s a few years since I wrote that first story, I’ve come to see that ‘old’ is not a dirty word.”
The opening story, in which Vanessa senses an attraction to her brawny woodworking instructor, shows the character’s faults, according to Rowntree. “She’s obviously a flawed person. She’s got a problem both with boundaries and yet she too tightly tries to control herself, but she also lets people push her too far sometimes.”
Another one of Vanessa’s creative experiments takes her to a writer’s workshop on Gladiola Island, a thinly-disguised version of one of B.C.’s Gulf Islands. It’s drenched in positive psychic energy and instructors who quaff caffeine-free rooibos. “Want an Omega hug, Vanessa?” inquires a fellow pupil named RainDear. When the offer is declined, RainDear shrugs, “Okay. Celebrate your day then.”
That chapter was the most fun to write, Rowntree said. The most emotionally taxing? The account of a painful incident on an Indian reserve in Ontario. She engaged an Indigenous sensitivity reader to critique her prose.
When addressing tragedy, Rowntree adopts a circumambulatory style that effectively delegates emotional heavy lifting to the reader. “This much is known about the rest of that night,” intones the hitherto omniscient narrator, inviting imagination to fill the gaps. When Vanessa undergoes a life-altering surgical procedure, spasmodic flashes of detail conjure the numbness of visceral shock.
Rowntree’s debut novel, Cluck, was published in 2016. She served as lead editor for a nonfiction anthology, Hidden Lives: True Stories from People Who Live With Mental Illness, that is now in its second edition.
See You Later Maybe Never is published by Now Or Never Publishing and is available online or from Sunshine Coast book retailers.