Dreaming of Fat City
Diane Baker Mason had been a writer all her life, but she couldn't finish
her first novel until she lost her marriage and a lot of weight
Word Count: 1,450; Article#:GM-DBM; Globe and Mail (Oct. 13, 2001)
By Paul Lima
Diane Baker Mason is getting ready for her wedding. She is running late and her dress is a mess. As is her easy-care, wash and wear hair. Still, she is uncommonly serene for a frequently frantic person who doesn't like to disappoint others. She arrives at the church feeling as if she has run a marathon. She hikes up her train and charges up the aisle to the altar where no groom stands. But this makes her feel serene. There is not supposed to be a groom. She is getting married. To herself.
Understanding that it is possible to complete herself, Mason wakes from her dream and begins to work on the guest list for her Last Summer At Barebones book launch party.
Mason feels like she is dreaming still. "All those years of writing on park benches and in cafes, thinking that my writing was crap, which it might be... It doesn't seem possible that it is here."
"Almost daily" Mason despaired about completing her first novel, something she started as a lark to keep her writing skills sharp until she found time for her magnum opus about a vampire housewife who drops from the sky like something out of a William Blake poem.
Last Summer at Barebones (McArthur & Co.) is narrated by Dee Graham, a forty-something journalist who writes for a tabloid newspaper. Graham, a near-anorexic recluse, is struggling to forget the traumas of her grossly overweight childhood. Then she crosses paths with an obese female comic spouting a routine based on intimate details of Graham's childhood. The comic is her sister, the once lithe and beautiful Theresa, whom Graham has not seen for almost 30 years. The encounter causes Graham to reflect on her miserable life, in particular the horrific summer of 1970 spent at Barebones Lake in Muskoka...
* * * * * * * *
Mason was an overweight child and "a binge eater and drinker" from her late teens until she turned 30. "I was fat my whole life, until 1990," says the 5-foot, 9-inch Mason who once tipped the scales at 220 pounds. She has lost a considerable amount of weight but still recalls being teased, spat upon and slapped because she was fat. As Mason describes these incidents, she spits out her words and arches her eyebrows incredulously, as if still trying to fathom how human beings can be so cruel.
An intelligent student with a flair for writing, she didn't make it through grade 13. Instead she left her Rexdale home at 16 and moved into a bachelor apartment in downtown Toronto. She married at 17 and gave birth to twins, Ian and Alan, at 27. She only drank at parties, never in front of the twins, but she ate constantly.
In 1989, she had an alcoholic's moments of clarity. "I was at a party, drunk out of my mind, and I saw myself in the mirror." What she saw was a drunk, overweight, unhappily married mother of two who lived for the next party. She quit drinking, went to weight watchers for the thirteenth time, started jogging and entered university as a mature student.
By 1993, sober and thinner and a religious jogger, she began work on Barebones. She was now a published short story writer and poet working on the last year of her honours BA in English at York University. She had won the prestigious Story Magazine contest for Feast, a short story about a never-ending gorge in hell. Feast was published in Gluttony: Ample Tales of Epicurean Excess, a sadly out of print anthology from Chronicle Books that included works by Woody Allen, Fran Lebowitz, Shakespeare, other notable authors. "And me. Go figure."
Mason also had five romance stories published in the tabloid journal The Star. She wrote the first one, Class Act, for a laugh, inspired by fellow students mooning over the novelist (and one of her English professors) Barry Callaghan.
Shortly after she began work on the novel, her mother's appendix burst and she developed peritonitis. Mason had to spend considerable time over the next year helping her convalesce. Her young twins also kept her busy. She recalls taking them to Canada's Wonderland, north of Toronto, where she wrote on notepads while they enjoyed the rides.
The novel grew and she soon she had 75,000 words written. That's when her hard drive crashed and she lost much of her work. She had been contemplating switching the narrative voice from third to first person and the hard drive crash became the impetus for the narrative shift.
"That was a big decision, to go first person, because I didn't want people to think this character was me." But she wanted first person intimacy for Dee's story.
She made the switch to a more intimate narrator, and then her marriage of 20 years collapsed.
Mason and her ex-husband had tried therapy several times but Mason could no longer live a lie. "It just wasn't working." She moved into "a feminist vegetarian cooperative boarding house" near High Park and the twins stayed with their father. Mason worked as a legal secretary, paid child support, returned to her old home every second day to cook for the children and do laundry and did virtually no writing.
Feeling claustrophobic in the boarding house, she found "a darling little bachelor apartment that had very good karma" and over the next two years she developed a routine: working, taking care of her kids part-time, running (she trained for and ran in and completed the New York City marathon). In her spare time she pecked away at her novel.
Bored with secretarial work and goaded by a friend, she applied for a Canada Council grant and applied to law school. She knew she could not complete the novel if she was accepted into law school. On February 28, 1999, she took a leap of faith and quit her job to work full time on the book.
And what a leap it was! March 2 she received a letter notifying her that she had qualified for a $10,000 Canada Council grant. March 3, she received a letter notifying her that she had been admitted to law school. She had six months to finish the novel, and she could afford to work on it full-time. "I love a deadline, she says.
She rented an inexpensive cabin in Bobcaygeon, Ontario to work on the novel, but returned to Toronto frequently to care for her children. The Friday before Labour Day weekend 1999 she sent three chapters of her completed novel to a literary agent.
He promptly returned it, suggesting she try the little literary presses.
A colleague told Mason to send her opus to his literary agent, Anne McDermid. McDermid got back to Mason in three months with predictions of an American sale and a six-figure advance.
Confident of a "slam dunk," McDermid took the Last Summer at Barebones manuscript to New York but the publisher she had in mind turned it down. The slam dunk turned into an air ball as several American and British publishers rejected Barebones: unhappy narrator, unhappy ending, way too bleak.
In her second year of law school, and with full-time custody of her twins (who refused to live with their father), Mason agreed to rewrite the ending. But she had to wait until Christmas break to find the time.
Over the next year Mason had to make time to "rewrite the sucker" two more times. One major revision, one minor. Each with a new ending. She completed her finally draft last January and McDermid sent it to Canadian publishers.
McArthur & Co. bit and scheduled a fall release. No six figures. No American publisher. But Mason was ecstatic. "It found the right home," she says.
Asked if she represents the quintessential Canadian author--no big book deal but loving it anyway, Mason pauses. "Is that Canadian? I guess maybe it is to think that my home might be smaller, but that doesn't mean it's not a home."
She is also confident that McDermid is going to sell Barebones to the States. And England and Australia.
Her launch party still in the planning stages, Mason is already at work on a new project. She is writing the novelization of Men With Brooms, based on the upcoming Paul Gross movie about love and curling.
And she has made another monumental life decision: she is taking a year off law school to work on her second novel. It's still about a housewife (Mason calls it her "bored housewife novel") but it no longer has anything to do with vampires. And the main character is not overweight.
Mason is finally living her dream. She has made time to write. To do anything less than that would be a living nightmare, a waste of time for a sober, thinner Mason who finds herself driven by fear. Not the mundane fears of success or failure, but "the fear of being mundane. Of living your whole life and not having tried."
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