Local author Michelle Baker writes poems that sometimes reach 15 or 20 pages in length. But when one hit the 40-page mark, “I thought, ‘This isn’t going to stop anytime soon,’” she says. That poem grew and morphed and eventually became The Canoe, a novel that weaves together two lives touched by the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Baker gives a reading and signing at Malaprop’s on Saturday, Nov. 15
The book — a slim volume that reads with the lyricism and white space of the original poem — was a new writing experience for Baker. An artist, playwright and editor in chief of online platform the Millionaire Girls’ Movement, Baker says, “I knew the story wasn’t going to fit in straight prose or straight poem. … There were moments where I thought, ‘Am I going to get torn apart stylistically? Is this blasphemous?’”
To the latter, local editor and writing coach Kevin McIlvoy responded, “So what if it is?”
As Baker’s novel veers from familiar formats, it offers a new perspective on a well-known story. The Titanic, a British passenger liner, has inspired countless works of art and tribute. But instead of focusing on the disaster, Baker’s prose revolves around the day-to-day lives of middle-aged widow Katherine (a passenger on the ship) and teenager Bernie (the son of a blacksmith and coffin builder). As Katherine prepares to leave England and memories of loss, Bernie — on the Chesapeake Bay — discovers first love and family loyalty. Both narratives are, at turns, sweet and raw.
It was Katherine’s character that first came to Baker. “She was a 20-something in Brooklyn,” the author says. “As I kept writing, I realized she was older and not in the 21st century — this was a long time ago.”
Bernie was inspired by Baker’s grandfather, one of Maryland’s first licensed morticians. “Because of that, I grew up around a lot of death, and with that comes a lot of stories,” she says. “Everyone can say where they were on 9/11. For my mom’s generation, everyone can say where they were when Kennedy was shot. For my grandfather … for nonwartime, it would have been the Titanic. I always wanted to ask him, ‘What did you hear about that?’” It occurred to her that, although she’d never had that conversation, she could make it up.
Because it’s novella-length — a difficult fit for mainstream publishing houses — Baker chose to self-publish The Canoe. She aligned the project with independent bookstores and will tour select cities — a possibility recently opened to independent writers. “Even Barnes & Noble is starting to do signings with self-published authors,” says Baker. “They’re realizing we’re a force.”
WHAT: Launch party for The Canoe, by Michelle Baker
WHERE: Malaprop’s, malaprops.com
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 15, at 7 p.m.