On the first of what would become her multiple trips to Barcelona, Becky Blake opted to live in the El Raval neighbourhood. She had heard that it was a rough, notorious area in the way of new-immigrant neighbourhoods, but figured it couldn’t be any different than similar neighbourhoods in Toronto where she’d previously lived. In a way, that turned out to be true. While she witnessed more crime, anger, danger and disease than she ever had, bad things refused to happen to her, even though she once sported a decoy purse hoping to attract a thief who she could then interview for research.
Over the next several years, the eight-page story that grew out of Becky’s initial trip to Barcelona would expand to become the novel Yours to Keep. She began the work of expanding the story during her time at the University of Guelph MFA Creative Writing program. With the guidance of mentor Pasha Malla, Becky worked on completing the first draft of the book, and with Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer she wrote several additional drafts to fulfill the MFA thesis requirement. That accomplished, Becky still felt that the manuscript had more problems than she could identify working on it alone. In search of a new perspective, she submitted the fourth draft of Yours to Keep to the DD mentorship program, which is uniquely focused on a writer completing a full-length work. This was ideal for Becky, since that was exactly her aim.
Mentor Shyam Selvadurai, who believed that Yours to Keep was close to being finished, had set the goal that the draft that Becky ended the mentorship program would hopefully be her last. After all, she didn’t want to be writing the book forever! With that in mind, he asked her to clarify the remaining problems and how she would fix them. As per Shyam’s request, she wrote him a letter explaining the project’s history. Then, Shyam read the manuscript. After he sent Becky detailed comments, they had a Skype conversation during which he asked her some tough questions, among them, what makes her book different from others similar and what she is saying on a mythological level. Then, before beginning her edits, she had to write him a second letter about her intentions, especially regarding the structural problems in the story. A few more correspondences and an in-person meeting followed. As Becky says, it really helped that “Shyam was able to frame the novel for me in a way that I hadn’t thought about before: as a picaresque story with almost Dickensian characters, a classic Hero’s journey with a couple of twists.”
Since everyone’s writing process is different, Becky recommends talking to your mentor about what your needs and goals are before starting work to take maximum advantage of the flexible nature of the DD mentorship program. As a more established writer, a mentor can not only give you constructive feedback, but also the confidence to finish your project.
Throughout her work on Yours to Keep, Becky has focused on revealing more of the thoughts and memories of the protagonist Nicole, and complicating the nature of her relationships with other characters, a lot of whom come from backgrounds and lead lives that are vastly different from Nicole’s privileged status as a white Canadian with a passport, free to travel and stay in places without harassment. In part, Yours to Keep deals with the feeling of discomfort between using privilege and rejecting it, wanting things to be easy versus fitting in and living the life of a local. Nicole’s dilemma is also one of wholeness. Like the half-built or half-demolished structures that surround her in the story, Nicole inhabits an empty, vertigo-inducing internal space that is neither past nor future. In Becky’s chosen spare writing style punctuated by sharp imagery, Yours to Keepcharts Nicole’s movement towards living in the present moment and feeling whole again.
That’s not to say there’s an abundance of soft in Yours to Keep. Quite the opposite; Becky’s research—a year-and-a-half’s worth spread over a three-year period—included trips to a rehabilitation center for Barcelona’s retired thieves and prostitutes, and a squat on the site of a former leper colony where she labored for half a day in exchange for a tour. She also spent a whole night conversing with a street beer-seller about illegal Spanish visas. Unfortunately, she didn’t get to speak with a working thief until she was many drafts in, so she used his input for some backwards fact-checking instead. A lot of what she gathered from her research has gone towards details that give the mostly fictional characters inYours to Keep, and their environments, a quality of realness.
Tattoos and other markings, permanent and semi, feature strongly in Yours to Keep. Not being one for tattoos herself, Becky considers Yours to Keep as her mark on Barcelona, her favorite city and one to which she will always return for its natural and architectural beauty. A dream launch for Becky would be held in a cocktail bar-cum-library in her former Barcelona neighborhood, with her Spanish and Catalan friends and informers present to see the finished book. They would sit and chat for hours, staying up late, in that lifestyle which Becky says brings out the best version of her.
Currently, she is spending about four hours daily incorporating Shyam’s final comments and adding her own tweaks to the fifth draft of Yours to Keep, paying attention to the slightly neglected last two thirds of the book. She’s also considering changing the current title and the three section headers that each references a stage of grief from the Kubler-Ross model. Her recent success at winning the CBC Short Story Prize has garnered agent interest in her work and she plans to send the manuscript out by the end of the summer. It is Becky’s hope that readers, male and female, will be as interested as she, to read “an adventure story with a female protagonist who really got her hands dirty” by way of choosing to live on the streets of Barcelona, trying out pickpocketing, freeganism, and breaking into her former apartment through a window (one of the most challenging passages to write for Becky), to name a few.
The journey of writing Yours to Keep has been exhausting but rewarding, requiring as much patience as Becky once drew on during an elephant wrangling course in Thailand—an experience which she says is not too far removed from writing. There will probably be more of this as she tackles the many unfinished pieces she has in her virtual drawer, many of them non-fiction—a genre that she is still figuring out.
One round-the-world trip and repeat stays in Barcelona and Buenos Aires later, Toronto remains the only city where Becky has been robbed; dramatically so: on Roncesvalles Avenue by three men in balaclavas. But it still remains home, so as much as the new continues to inspire her and living abroad continues to provide jolts of inspiration, Becky will always be writing in some way about the place she knows best: Canada.