i was born in windsor, ontario on june 25, 1950, the third of four children. My parents were young. Neither had attended university, which wasn’t unusual back then, although my father studied art for a couple of years after the war. To support his young family, he sold life insurance, a job he hated. In 1954 the insurance company promoted him to its Toronto office, and we moved to a new suburb north of the city. Nowadays Don Mills is part of Toronto proper, but in the nineteen-fifties it was bordered by abandoned farm fields and ruptured by a steep, undeveloped ravine, so you had these stark, brick bungalows and treeless lawns right next to glorious wild areas that the odd coyote and hobo wandered through. There was a rushing river too polluted to swim in, but we swam in it anyway and were found out by the skin rashes and conjunctivitis we invariably came down with. Renamed or unnamed, Don Mills has served as the setting for two of my novels and a number of my short stories.
Don Mills didn’t have a library, not for years, but every week a bookmobile pulled into the plaza, and my older brother and sister and I became regular users. Confined by library rules to the children’s sections, we read the German and British fairy tales that the section almost exclusively supplied: unrelenting dark fare in which children are stuffed into ovens, drugged into comas, lusted after, buried alive. No wonder I went on to write some of the stories I did.
When I was thirteen, my father switched from insurance to advertising, and we moved further north and east to a new subdivision called Bridlewood. Alas, the horses were long gone. I entered high school and joined the choir and drama clubs. I played Mary Warren in The Crucible and won The Simpson’s Drama Festival Award for my very few lines, one of which (the only one I recall) was, “You are the devil’s man!” Encouraged, I entered university to study Theatre Arts, but I couldn’t afford the tuition nor bear the long winter commute on three separate buses that rarely connected.
In the spring I dropped out and found a job at a brokerage firm. It seems incredible to me now that I, who can’t balance a bankbook, managed to earn my certification as a licensed broker. The plan was to make a lot of money and then go home and read the classics, Austen to Zola. I lived by myself in a third-floor walk-up that had a kitchen but no kitchen sink. The few dishes and pots dirtied by my diet of Raisin Bran, canned soup and frozen Sara Lee cakes, I brought into the shower with me. That worked. I can’t say the same for the job. I was too young and looked even younger. No one would trade with me. I settled for being a secretary.
It was 1972. I married my high-school sweetheart and bought a piano. The plan now was to become a nightclub pianist. I practiced every spare hour, three and four hours a night, twenty hours on weekends. My poor, long-suffering husband. We divorced, inevitably. I quit the brokerage firm and found a job at a two-person publishing firm. Again, it seems incredible: a university dropout landing a job at a publishing house. But this was a long time ago, the population was smaller, and I knew shorthand. I took dictation and answered the phone. I forget how it happened that a couple of years down the road I was allowed to edit a series of books about symphony-orchestra conductors. Of Herbert von Karajan, the first volume in the series, one reviewer said, “This is most eccentrically punctuated book I have ever encountered.”
A little late in the day I immersed myself in proofreading and style guides. I learned the grammatical difference between “that” and “which,” and when you should say, “If I was,” as opposed to “If I were.” Meanwhile I read unsolicited manuscripts and wondered at the nerve of people. Obviously you didn’t need to be a genius to write. I decided to try my hand at it. The truth was, the professional pianist idea wasn’t panning out.
I started with a story. I gave it the fancy name, “Mare Serenitatis,” and submitted it to two literary magazines. Both accepted. I chose the one that paid. I was a paid writer. I quit the publishing house to write stories and freelance edit. As any freelancer will tell you, you risk taking on all the projects you’re offered in case you go through a period of dearth. So there I was, editing every waking hour and writing scarcely a word, living in terror of poverty despite fairly regular paychecks. Eventually I cracked and went back to work in an office, this time editing for Raven House Mysteries, a new line financed and marketed by the Harlequin Romance people. Down the hall was a man editing their Action Adventure line. At the Harlequin Christmas party he and I fell in love. Within a year Raven House closed down (mystery readers, it turns out, don’t like to be mass-marketed), and my husband and I decided that I should stay home, write a bestselling novel and have a baby.
The baby never arrived. The marriage failed. The book, a historical novel with the dreadful title of Through the Green Valley was not a bestseller.
But the next book was.