Under the Cover: Free to a Good Home

June 12, 2019

Jules Torti sits down with us to chat about her memoir Free to a Good Home (Caitlin Press), discussing the uncanny sympatico that revealed itself in the books final cover design and her 88-house adventure, starting in rural southwestern Ontario, to find home in both its physical form and internal sense.

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At the tail end of grade 8, my graduating class was packed onto a yellow school bus bound for Quebec City to trial the success (or failure) of our French studies. We were all keen on an ‘exotic’ souvenir from this milestone trip and I couldn’t wait to have my caricature drawn by an authentic français-speaking artiste. I palmed him a tenner—chore income that equated to six weeks of steady bed-making and dish-doing.

While my classmates foolishly blew money on snow globes and maple fudge, I was quite pleased with investment in the arts. However, after a 20-minute pose, I was less than thrilled with my $10 charcoal portrait. The artist had captured my Flock of Seagulls-esque hairstyle—but he had also assumed HUGE creative liberties and added three curly hairs to my chin. Funny, I do have those hairs on my chin now, but I definitely didn’t then.

This is what happens when an artist’s vision collides with another visionary. When you’re a memoir writer, handing over creative control to a graphic artist (ie. Gerilee McBride) is a bit unnerving. I’m sure it was a shared feeling—she was suddenly in charge of capturing the essence of my life on a book cover. It was like being politely invited to a surprise party—for myself. Would it be a hit or fall flat like Uncle Phil after too many rum and Cokes at a wedding/funeral/Easter dinner?

I hoped Gerilee would nail the cover art and not give me chin hairs. I suggested a whimsical hot air balloon (with me hanging precariously on the edge of the basket) or a neatly-folded paper airplane plastered with passport stamps. What about a cardboard fort or treehouse with a compass hologram? A pile of suitcases or a beat-up backpack with luggage tags and FRAGILE stickers? Eventually, I let the expert be and the waiting period involved a lot of pacing (that unfortunately was not tracked with a Fitbit).

Here’s the thing—Gerilee created a cover that said exactly what I wanted to ‘say’ (but took 240 pages to do so) with the image of a bird cage and a bird taking flight. Free to a Good Home! The surprise party was a success (unlike my French vocab retention, mon dieu). Or, as the millennials would say, #boom.

And now for the neat part, where the artist and visionary are unknowingly simpatico: Years ago, my kid brother gave me two darling coffee mugs from Newfoundland with bird cages on them. On the mug, the bird is caged. This is all very profound of course when the coffee mugs are compared to the free bird cover art of my memoir. If only I could read tea leaves! Certainly, the caged bird was a sign way back then. Gerilee’s design spookily meshed entirely with my Spirograph philosophy of everything coming full circle.

Gerilee was also unaware that my partner and I have a vintage bird cage hanging in a cedar tree in our backyard. We found it in a dodgy scrapyard-slash-ongoing-junk-sale near St. George, Ontario. We pulled the bird cage and an old cruiser bike out of a rusting heap for ‘outdoor boho décor’ purposes, praying that our tetanus shots were still valid. We didn’t have lockjaw by the time we arrived home, so, it was a rewarding foraging mission.

One of our resident red squirrels still has a lot to say about that cage—he chirps at it with laser focus, ready to do battle. Maybe he was a caged bird in his last life. Maybe I was? My memoir is definitely a flight of fancy that has ticket stub souvenirs from Vancouver, the Congo, Uganda, Amsterdam and Costa Rica among other whims. To make sense of all these destinations, readers are quickly introduced to my initial launching pad, a ‘70s ranch three corn fields behind a drive-in theatre in rural southwestern Ontario.

Free to a Good Home revolves around the universal search for belonging, right from the get-go. Is this found in a person, a place or a bricks and mortar (or log or Japanese Shou Sugi Ban siding) thing? What about that other, bigger piece of real estate: the sense of feeling at home within? This is where the caged bird sits, wrestling with schoolgirl crushes, on school girls, not boys.

Jann Arden once told me that I needed to jump out of my skin—and truthfully, when we first exchanged emails, I was feeling caged. I wondered where Jann had bought her fool-proof crystal ball to see something so clearly and instantly that I hadn’t—and I was living in my skin. I was restless, but for a long while, that was my default setting. It was a pattern of roommates, girlfriends, old dogs, ex-girlfriends, older dogs. Moving. Packing. Moving. Sound familiar?

In between, my five-year plan was apparently written in invisible ink. My patchwork solution was to migrate places like Uganda and the Congo where everything was unfamiliar—right down to making breakfast for 26 chimpanzees. This was my idea for ‘refining’ my sense of home. Leaving everything that made me comfortable for the frisson and pharma-like high that travel was synonymous with. I liked to ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ as so many teachers had suggested years before.

My story is not unique, we are all searching for home. But, I promise that there’s no other life like it. For example, you will not read Michelle Obama’s Becoming and say, “This is exactly like Jules Torti’s memoir Free to a Good Home!”

 I didn’t expect that writing about my recent 88-house-long search for home would become my first book—but I knew it had to be. I knew it would resonate because we’ve all been there. Picture it: chaotic stacks of boxes, cold pizza, warm beer, weary back and raw hands. Building yet another Ikea bookshelf with an Allen key at yet another address. Finding a purpose, a person(s), a place(s) all at once is a feat. It’s probably the reason why someone coined the word ‘homework.’

This much I know is true—writing a memoir is the quickest way to uncage yourself. And now I have Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” stuck in my head. I’m also wondering if I can take a tea leaf reading course online.

Oh, yep, I can. Who knew it was called tasseomancy?



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Special thanks to Sarah Corsie at Caitlin Press and to Jules Torti for sharing the story behind the creation of Free to a Good Home.

Get Under the Cover to discover more about other great reads on All Lit Up>>


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