Kingston WritersFest Part II: A conversation with Laurie Lewis

Any trip to Kingston would be incomplete without a visit with Laurie Lewis, and so it was that I made plans to meet up with Laurie last Saturday for lunch while I was in town for the Kingston WritersFest. For Part I of my account of PQL’s trip to Kingston, read here. For more on Laurie Lewis, read on….

The Porcupine’s Quill published Laurie’s first book, a memoir, last year to great success. Little Comrades was listed in The Globe and Mail’s top 100 books of 2011, and, following its publication, Laurie was invited onto Canada AM and the K-Town Source, and interviewed in The Globe. This past year, Laurie has been working on her second book, Love, and all that jazz, and it is now ready for publication in the spring of 2013. Love, and all that jazz, picks up not far from where Little Comrades left off, with a young Laurie in New York City. The book follows her marriage to Gary Lewis, a prominent figure in the NYC jazz scene in the 50s and 60s. Laurie finds herself falling into a world she knew nothing about, and, like her mother before her, Laurie must make hard choices to protect herself and her daughter. Love, and all that jazz is “a story of a marriage, and all that came after it.”

Laurie and I met at Sima Sushi, a favourite Kingston restaurant of mine, on Princess Street. Sima Sushi became my go-to sushi spot in my final year at Queen’s, when I realized I could go there and share several makis among friends and only end up paying a little under ten dollars for the meal. It was to be a quick lunch, so that Laurie would have time to return to the Holiday Inn for more WritersFest events in the afternoon. I had bumped into Laurie at the launch of The Essential Tom Marshall the night before, so I knew she was avidly attending the festival.

When Laurie arrived, I had already grabbed a seat near the back. She came in, looking elegant in a purple jacket with a scarf hanging over one of her shoulders. She smiled when she saw me—what a delight!—and we settled down to our table.

Laurie and I spoke briefly about the Kingston WritersFest and the Kingston literary scene. Laurie has lived in Kingston for over twenty years now, and she told me that she has slowly been breaking into the writing community. “I go to everything,” she said, and after a while people start to notice you. It certainly seemed like Laurie had “made it” when I saw her at our event just the night before. She was sitting in the back, the same as me, and everyone who came in seemed to be grabbing her hands, asking how she was, exclaiming “Laurie!”

But Laurie hadn’t always been a writer—or always thought of herself as one anyway. Laurie worked in publishing for most of her adult life in the production division of the University of Toronto Press. She eventually rose through the ranks to become Head of Design, and she spent her years working with the likes of Allan Fleming, Will Rueter, and Antje Lingner. Laurie writes about her experience in the Canadian publishing scene in Love, and all that jazz, describing the fun she used to have with the designers. We talked briefly about publishing in Canada, and Laurie described the excitement of publishing in the 60s and 70s. She told me that books before that time were boring—dull looking with dull content—but in the time that she was working for UTP, things were changing. There was a real sense, she told me, that a book was a work of art. It was in fact during this time that Laurie met her future publisher, Tim Inkster, though they wouldn’t come to really know each other until nearly forty years later.

Laurie Lewis

Laurie and her brother Andy as children.

Aside from a perspective into mid-twentieth-century publishing in Canada, Love, and all that jazz, provides a fascinating perspective into women’s lives during the same time. Combined with her first book, Little Comrades, Laurie offers insight into the changing lives of women over the course of nearly the entire twentieth century. In Love, Laurie speaks often of women’s lives in the “pre-pill days” and how she managed to work as a single mother before daycare.

As we ate our sushi (difficult to do, I learned, while also trying to engage in a conversation since small bites are not really an option), I asked Laurie what she could tell me about the differences between being a woman in the 60s and 70s and being a woman today. For example, I asked, what was life like before the pill? Laurie provided an answer I never could have expected.

“After the pill,” Laurie told me, “it was a meat market.”

Before the pill was invented, women could fend off advances fairly well. But Laurie told me that in the years following the introduction of the pill, “the girls had no excuse.” It seemed that suddenly because women were no longer in danger of becoming pregnant, they should have been game for sex with anyone, at anytime. In combination with the “discovery” of the female orgasm—which had occurred only a few years before the introduction of the pill—this time saw an unprecedented, public sexualization of the female body. Hearing Laurie speak, I questioned who exactly this development benefited, the women or the men…. Whatever the social side-effects of the introduction of the pill, it still had been something women fought for. Contraceptives still protected women from a life of childbearing and allowed them time to enter the workforce before they became mothers. Laurie told me that during this time, women were thrown in jail for spreading information about contraceptives—a story many of you will already be familiar with.

Laurie Lewis

Laurie as a young woman in New York City.

I asked Laurie what she though still needed to be done in terms of women’s rights in the twenty-first century. There is no doubt that the situation is better than it was, but I wondered if Laurie thought we still had further advances to make.

Laurie responded that women today have all the same rights as men, but that “rights are not enough”. Nor will they be enough until the social climate changes. Until it is no longer acceptable to call a woman a “bitch” in casual conversation (and you can see my conversation with Sheree-Lee Olson for more on that subject), or until it is just as acceptable to call a man a “prick” in that same conversation, rights will not be enough.

I couldn’t have agreed with Laurie more. I expressed my dismay, upon hearing Laurie’s proud declaration of female equality, that I could not speak this way with my peers. Laurie fell silent, thinking of what I had said. Why is it that women in their early twenties so often shy away from “feminism” and “women’s rights”? And Laurie provided the best, most sensitive response I have ever heard on the subject. They wouldn’t be able to, she told me, because victims often can’t speak about the crimes committed against them. It makes them feel like victims. It doesn’t mean that they are any less brave, she told me.

And with that, our time together was coming to a close. Laurie and I walked down to the Holiday Inn together, so she might make her planned events for the afternoon. After leaving her, I walked back up into the heart of Kingston, her words still present in my mind. How delightful it is when you can speak openly with an acquaintance and find your thoughts are the same. How even more delightful when that same acquaintance can introduce you to new ideas, to solutions you have never considered..

With another day left in Kingston, there was still much more to happen to me and the Porcupine’s Quill. We had George A Walker’s talk the next afternoon, and I had the rest of Saturday to wander around Kingston visiting all my favourite old haunts.

My heartfelt thanks to Laurie Lewis for speaking with me last Saturday. To find out what happened to me next in Kingston, click here.

This entry was posted in Letters from the Porcupette (the Intern's Blog) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Kingston WritersFest Part II: A conversation with Laurie Lewis

  1. Pingback: The Porcupine’s Quill

  2. Pingback: The Porcupine’s Quill


The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.