Pulled Out of a Hat: An Interview with Ceilidh Michelle
Ceilidh Michelle, a Montreal-based writer raised in rural Nova Scotia, published a novel with Palimpsest Press in 2019 and a memoir with Douglas McIntyre in 2021. The novel Butterflies, Zebras, Rainbows tells the story of B., a musician and rebel ensconced in Montreal’s live music scene. The memoir Vagabond: Venice Beach, Slab City and Points in Between portrays Michelle’s year of dangerous living as a wandering 20-year-old sleeping unhoused near the Venice Beach boardwalk.
Michelle’s writing has appeared in Entropy, Longreads, The Void, Broken Pencil, Scrivener Creative Review, and elsewhere. She has a BA from Concordia University and a MSc from the University of Edinburgh. Butterflies, Zebras, Rainbows was shortlisted for the 2020 Hugh MacLennan Fiction Prize.
I spoke with Michelle via Zoom in April 2022 about memoir and fiction, writers and musicians, and getting out of town.
Kevin Cummins: Do you think of your memoir, Vagabond, as being in conversation with another writer’s work? When you were writing it, was any book a model or a foil?
Ceilidh Michelle: I hadn’t read many memoirs before I started to write my own. When my agent Barbara Berson said, “You’ve got a nonfiction book here.” It was scary for me to say, “This is not a fictionalized world.” I hadn’t gone out of my way to read anything in preparation for writing it. I had been inspired by Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. I loved the way she bared her spirit in that book. She also made it funny. I had assumed memoir was self-serious and self-indulgent, but Mary Karr showed me you could be funny.
I had assumed memoir was self-serious and self-indulgent, but Mary Karr showed me you could be funny.
KC: Your memoir portrays both a coming-of-age and a traumatic chapter of your life. What were you trying to learn as you were writing Vagabond?
CM: It’s weird. Maybe my agent suggested it was non-fiction because it doesn’t follow a fictional route. There’s no rising tension, climax, and conclusion. This is a story that started out one way and ended up another way. I started out with this idealistic pilgrimage. I wanted to become a Yogi. I had been given Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, and I wanted to study under his principles. I had no idea what that even meant. I still don’t. My whole plan was harebrained. My plan was to get off the bus in Sacramento, hitchhike to Nevada City, and join this ashram. Then everything went haywire. I was thinking on my feet. “Okay,” I thought. “Let’s go to Venice Beach.” When you’re twenty, you can get away with that footloose and fancy-free run around. Now, it would stress me out.
KC: In Vagabond, the narrator is never named. Many of the characters have street names. Did you have a street name?
CM: When I was in Venice Beach, nobody called me Ceilidh. Everyone called me Cali, for California, because I loved California. And I was the only Canadian there. Everyone made fun of my accent, thought it was novel. I don’t think anyone knew my name was Ceilidh.
I have a hard time writing about myself. In writing workshops, I’ve been told I’m not giving enough of the protagonist. It’s become easier for me as I’ve developed as a writer.
There’s been some trauma in my life I didn’t want to share. Sometimes my generation and younger feel empowered by dumping their trauma on other people. All of us are traumatized. All of us have been through so much. It’s not that you have to keep it to yourself, but your trauma is not the only trauma, and dumping all of your stuff on people can sometimes just be bad manners.
KC: You have a gift for writing scenes. Your memoir, Vagabond, doesn’t show its narrator writing in her journal, but the twenty-year-old you, who lived the Vagabond experiences, did write in a journal, didn’t she?
CM: The entire time I was in Venice Beach I was writing everything down. I carried a notebook everywhere. I want to go back and hug my twenty-year-old self in gratitude. I am not an archivist. I do not have a photographic memory. For me to have all that dialogue and physical detail, that’s just ridiculous. I’m glad I was journaling every day, writing down everything I saw. I should do it more now. Carrying a notebook around with you everywhere is probably the best thing you can do as a writer because it keeps you noticing things. Having a notebook in your hand reminds you to observe and to be present. That’s what it made me do. Also, back then, no one carried an iPhone, so everyone’s eyes were open. Not only was I writing things down, but I wasn’t trying to text or take photos or do Instagram. I was living an analog life.
Carrying a notebook around with you everywhere is probably the best thing you can do as a writer because it keeps you noticing things. Having a notebook in your hand reminds you to observe and to be present.
KC: Do you still write by hand?
CM: I write new ideas—drafts—in a notebook. I edit on the computer. Both are rigid practices for me. For a final edit, however, I print it off and read it. Anytime I try to do a final edit on a computer screen, I just don’t catch anything. Once I print it, I’m like, “Oh my God, there it all is.”
KC: Your memoir focuses on the narrator’s lived Vagabond experience with just hints of her prior life. It opens with a Slab City chapter, followed by a Montreal chapter set in a reality like your novel’s setting: lousy apartment with a kind, aging Black Caribbean man down the hall who rolls a joint and puts dal on the stove when the narrator visits. This scene could be in your novel, but it’s from your memoir, Vagabond, right?
CM: Yeah, it is. That was going to be a chapter in Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams, but I didn’t want to fictionalize that part because it was such a vibrant part of my life. Painful, yet colorful. Even as a young writer, I thought: This is interesting, and I’m going to write about this when it stops being so hard.
KC: Your novel, Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams, is fiction made about a milieu you knew as a young musician in Montreal, right?
CM: Even though Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams is set in Montreal, a lot of the experiences in it came from a time when I lived in a band house with a bunch of people in Vancouver.
All these things live inside me simultaneously. I think time is not linear. These books can almost produce themselves. Yes, I have to sit down and work and write and educate myself. But because these stories live simultaneously, when it comes to structuring them, it’s as if I pulled them out of a hat.
California has been a part of my life for a long time. Even before I experienced Vagabond, I had a time in San Francisco. I hated Toronto, so I wrote an ad on Craigslist, and I said, “I don’t care who is going where, I wanna get in someone’s car and go.” Three guys wrote me back: a Pakistani guy, a Korean guy, and a guy from India who were all friends in Toronto. “We’re going to San Francisco,” they said. “Do you want a ride?” We had this great road trip to San Francisco where they dropped me off. I stayed in North Beach for a while. That was my first California experience, so I already had all of this West Coast love inside of me. I spent time in Vancouver as well.
Later, back in Montreal, I wrote an early draft of Vagabond as this scribbly journal-esque story. It was an absolute mess. I’m a high school dropout. My writing was chaotic and undisciplined. I didn’t have any writing techniques.
When I was twenty-eight years old, on a whim, I applied to Concordia University as a mature student, and I got in. I had this strong teacher, this professor who told me, “It’s going to take you ten years to write your first book.” I’m a bit of a rebellious spirit, so I said, “Is it? I’m taking that as a personal challenge.” So, in my undergrad, I wrote Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams and saw it published. On the last day of university, I looked at this professor and said, “You told me it would take me ten years to finish my first novel. Here it is.” That was a cool moment for me, to get a university diploma without ever having obtained a high school diploma and to publish this first novel.
KC: Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams opens with sentences that could have come from your memoir:
“Nothing was ever as glamorous or smooth as it sounded. The days were rough and we were rough in them. We were disgruntled and lost, lonely and insecure. We ate too much or not enough, we woke up ugly, we behaved badly. Transient was too kind a word, it was more like the chaos of a mosh pit. . . . I’m speaking for no one. I’m speaking for people I used to know. I want to tell the stories of my friends before they’re forgotten in the hustle of growing old.”
Nothing was ever as glamorous or smooth as it sounded. The days were rough and we were rough in them. We were disgruntled and lost, lonely and insecure.
Were you writing both the memoir and the novel at the same time?
CM: Vagabond was written down first, but Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams became a novel first. I thought that Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams was going to be easier to write first, and it was because it was short, and it was fiction. From there, I started writing another book of fiction, loosely based around my family and growing up in Nova Scotia. That one is challenging to write because its historical component involves a lot of research. I was in the middle of it, and having a hard time, when I told my agent, Barbara: “I had this crazy time when I was young, and I went to California.” She said, “Is that a book?” I said, “It could be.” And she goes. “Okay let’s work on that for a minute.” So, I took a break from the epic Canadian history research project, and I wrote Vagabond on a whim. It was kind of an accident.
KC: Your two books have a structural parallel. In each, the setting changes seventy-five percent of the way through. In Vagabond, you and Half-Peach go to Slab City, and in Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams, B. goes to Los Angeles for the chapter called “dream in A Minor.” And in both books, the setting changes again ninety percent of the way through. Was the shift of setting for the books’ penultimate sections a conscious structure strategy?
CM: No. I was not conscious of that, but I wanted “Dream in A Minor” in Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams to serve as a bridge—like when a pop song departs from the chorus and has a bridge in a dissonant or minor tone. I wanted to play around with that parallel between writing a song and writing a novel. But, also, a lot of what I do is not very intentional. I don’t know what I’m doing a lot of the time. Sometimes I try and I fail. I was trying to play with time. I just finished The Dutch House by Anne Patchett. She’s so good at moving you through the lives of these characters and moving you back and forth in time. I stand in awe of that skill, and I’d like to pull it off in my own work—taking a reader through a span of time.
KC: Both of your books, but especially Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams, have allusions and homages to musicians. Who were your musical heroes when you were a teenager?
CM: I was raised in a rigid evangelical Christian environment, so there was a lot of hiding CDs under your pillow. One of the first CDs or albums that made an impression on me was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. It was rebellious and gritty. I remember listening to it in my best friend’s upstairs bedroom with the CD we had stolen from her older sister. “Man, this is so cool,” I thought. Music made me feel cool. You’re awkward when you’re a kid. You feel embarrassed and ashamed and uncool. Listening to music made me feel cool. I listened to grunge, like Nirvana. Being the oldest child in a dysfunctional environment made me seek out music on my own. I didn’t have older siblings blazing trails, telling me what was cool. MTV was a sin, so I didn’t get a lot of the early influences that other kids my age might have gotten. It was almost like seeking out contraband black market underground stuff and having to find out what was cool on my own. As a writer, I listened to the lyrics. I got into Neil Young. Any teenager who started smoking pot is going to listen to Neil Young. Turn off the lights, close your eyes, put on Like a Hurricane, and just have an experience.
KC: Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, like you, are Canadian musicians who went to California. In Vagabond, a passage about LA’s canyons mentions Dahlia, the jewelry maker who lived with three dogs in a circle game—an allusion to a Joni Mitchell song.
CM: Just everything that Joni Mitchell represented at that time. I spent time in Laurel Canyon, and I had this burning envy and longing for the day when Neil Young could jump into a hearse, drive to California, forget about green cards and cash, and just go live in LA. That’s untenable now. There is no way a young rootless musician could wander into LA and make not only a life, but a career. And thrive. Young people today do not have that opportunity. Nobody is even free enough to wander around anymore. Part of the rage that fueled Vagabond grew out of me seeing young people defeated before they even got started. Young people today don’t have as much of a chance as Joni Mitchell did. For example, when she showed up in Laurel Canyon and had a big, beautiful house with Graham Nash, and they could sing about the yard and the cats and all these things they could have. Now, you’re lucky if you can get a one-bedroom apartment, and forget about LA.
KC: It’s all just a game: to try to tell stories that matter.
CM: That’s exactly what it is. Everybody has a story to tell. If you can make your story relatable and valid and compassionate, your reader is like: I feel connected to you. That’s what the point is. Everyone needs to keep that in mind as we all write.
Kevin Cummins, an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, was born in Queens, raised in western New York, and has taught in Brooklyn, San Francisco, and on St. Croix in the Caribbean Sea. He holds an MA from the Bread Loaf School of English and lives in Albuquerque with his wife, two children, cat, dog, and drop-in roadrunners. He’s on Twitter @kevinjcummins and Instagram @kjc6degrees.