*The Knife Sharpener’s Bell

The Knife Sharpener’s Bell is a novel about a Canadian family, originally from Russia, which returns to the Soviet Union–yes returns. This happened more times than people realize, when the depression was hitting hard. Communism was so respected that in 1932 Will Durant, a writer and journalist, could not get an article about the Ukrainian famine published in Harper’s or The Atlantic, because those eminent publications worried about alienating readers.

Now here I have to pause to tell you about the author of this novel, Rhea Tregebov, whose family history includes a story of returnees to the Soviet Union. Rhea is a friend of mine, an accomplished poet and writer of children’s stories. My kids still sometimes mention them. Rhea is also a creative writing prof out at the University of British Columbia.

I hope that her students appreciate her. Rhea has the unique gift of being able to criticise writing while making it sound like praise. I don’t mean that she deals in flattery or half-truths or lies, but that she has a way of putting criticism that is energizing, making one want to roll up the sleeves and get to work. Her criticism magically engages confidence in what has already been done and what can be done with that work. I don’t know how she does it.

Rhea was my mentor in a program for first novels at The Writers’ Union of Canada when I was writing The River Midnight. It was my first novel, and her feedback helped me to bring it up more than a notch. A few years later, somewhere around the third draft of The Singing Fire, I was thinking that I should quit writing and get a job pushing paper. But Rhea’s special brand of encouragement mixed with criticism got me back onto the fourth draft, which involved cutting vast swaths of the novel and starting from scratch…better.

I think that Rhea, in her own unostentatious way, knows everybody who is anybody in Canadian literature. I’m not sure that I’m anybody, but she’s been a gift in my life, and I know in many others.

Her entire ouevre, and there are many wonderful books, can be seen at her website. Have a look and do more–buy.

8 thoughts on “*The Knife Sharpener’s Bell

  1. My PhD supervisor was just like that – brilliant at constructive criticism. I felt she shaped my whole career – having her voice in my head made me a much better researcher and a much better teacher. But it’s left me with a lifelong contempt for teachers who can only criticise harshly, unkindly. It seems to me they do not know how to do their jobs! I’m so glad you had someone like this in your writing life, Lilian!

  2. Thanks Litlove, me too. I honestly think it’s a particular gift. I’ve tried to imitate it but I don’t have the knack. It’s one thing to criticize harshly, and I don’t do that (I hope!) but it’s another to be able to criticize in such a way that it doesn’t invite the normal defensiveness and sensitivity that anyone feels about any sort of criticism leveled at something she’s worked hard on and put her heart into. Rather to inspire confidence in ones’ ability to go the distance. That is rare.

  3. Michelle

    She sounds like someone I’d like to read, thank you for mentioning her.

    And yes, it takes a special kind of person to give ideal criticism. I was lucky in that as well, and had a professor who really knew exactly how to get me to see what wasn’t working with my first novel manuscript and how to get me excited about revisions. I still love revisions, so his influence has remained.

  4. Pingback: noticing the world | Tailfeather

  5. Pingback: Lilian Nattel on The Knife Sharpener’s Bell | Rhea Tregebov

  6. Pingback: Poet and Mentor « A Novelist's Mind: Lilian Nattel Online

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