While first sentences are sometimes the hardest to write, they’re also often the most important – and in the case of Marjorie Celona’s debut novel Y (Penguin Canada), her first sentence was, in fact, the first one she wrote. “My life begins at the Y” is the opening line of her novel about Shannon, a young girl who’s abandoned as a baby and seeks to find out where she came from and why her mother decided to leave her outside of a YMCA. Told entirely from Shannon’s perspective, the novel follows Shannon’s childhood and teenage years, focusing on her struggle to come to terms with the hand she’s been dealt in life.
“The initial inspiration was just the letter ‘Y’ itself, and from there I wrote the little introductory paragraph that sort of kicks off the book, and then the first line popped into my head,” explains Celona, adding that the novel originally started as a short story which she wrote in 2004. “I wrote the short story initially to find out what that first line meant and who this character was, who that first person ‘my life’ was. And it wasn’t until a number of years later that I realized the short story really wasn’t finished.”
The short story focused primarily on Shannon’s search for Vaughan, the man who witnessed Shannon’s abandonment at the YMCA. In the novel, however, Celona wanted to have Shannon also hunt for her mother, Yula. “I was curious, too – I didn’t know where Yula was or who Yula was at all,” says Celona. “So I thought that would be a nice journey for me to go on as a writer, and to finally let the character of Shannon find out who her birth parents are.”
Although each chapter of the novel alternates perspectives from telling Shannon’s story, followed by Yula’s story, the book retains its Shannon-focused outlook by having it told entirely from her first-person narrator. For Celona, it was an obvious choice to write this novel completely from inside Shannon’s mind: “Shannon is just about the, for lack of a better word, loudest character that I’ve ever had in my head.” But while she stands by her decision to tell this story in Shannon’s own voice, she admits that at times it was a struggle. “To sustain a novel, a whole novel, 368 pages, in the first person – honestly, and I’m not making this up, the ‘I’ key on my laptop stopped working at the end of writing this book,” she says with a laugh.
Celona explains that Shannon’s character arrived in her head fully formed, and that while she did character work on the rest of the novel’s cast, she didn’t find it necessary to further develop Shannon. “I think with a first person narrator you have to feel that way,” says Celona. “I don’t think as a writer you can get to know your first person narrator – you either know her inside and out, or you don’t. And if you don’t, well then maybe you have to write it in third person to figure out who he or she is.”
While telling Shannon’s story was Celona’s primary goal when she first started writing Y, she also began to seek inspiration from author Alice Munro’s ability to create an historical snapshot of a certain place and time. “I thought that was a very noble function that fiction could accomplish, and so I thought, ‘maybe what I’ll do is infuse this book with every sort of detail of Vancouver Island in the late ’80s and ’90s and preserve the Victoria of my childhood,’” Celona explains. “Because certainly Victoria, like everywhere else, is always going to change and in 10 years it may be a completely different place. I never intended to make it so Victoria-centric, but by the end that was absolutely one of the most important things about the book.”