Before My Time

Before My Time – coming, spring 2021.

Cover reveal! Introducing the beautiful new cover of the upcoming paperback edition of my memoir. Notice anything different?

Normally, the paperback release of a book happens about a year after the hardcover’s original publication date. Sometimes, the paperback’s cover requires a tweak, an update, or even a complete makeover from the hardcover’s dust jacket. And, occasionally, in extremely rare cases, the book’s original title is changed.

Wait, what? My memoir, originally and for-the-moment titled Daughter of Family G : a memoir of cancer genes, love and fate was published late September, 2019. At that time, I went on a cross-Canada tour that included literary festivals, bookstore signings, library readings, bookclub meetings, cancer research fundraisers and lots of lovely interviews for radio, TV, print and podcast.

Although I’d previously gone on book tours with my novels, it was my first time on the road with a memoir. To be honest, it was strange at first, to stand in front of audiences and read about my own life, but I had high hopes that readers might connect with the stories I’d woven together about the extraordinary real-life characters in my family tree. I was excited to share this book I’d written about the power of story itself.

But a strange thing kept happening, reading after reading, event after event—long-time readers who’d read all my fiction would confess that they didn’t know if the memoir was for them. “Thank you for coming,” I’d say, as I signed their well-worn copies of The Birth House and The Witches of New York. And I truly meant it. I was SO grateful that they’d taken the time to come out to hear me talk.

But at night I’d call my dear husband, my voice quiet with worry, and make confessions of my own: “People don’t get why I wrote this book. No one wants it. They’re scared of it. They don’t see that it’s about joy and persistence and hope.”

“Be patient,” he’d said. “Any one who reads it will understand. And then they’ll share it with the people in their lives who really need it. Give it time.”

In the year that followed…reader reviews would prove him right. Nearly everyone who chose to take a chance on the memoir found that it wasn’t the bleak read they’d anticipated.

So how did we get here? When it came time to think about the paperback edition, I wound up having some pretty intense discussions with my fabulous editor, Anne Collins. “Is there a way to let readers know that they can trust me with their hearts?” I asked. I was serious. It was April 2020 and COVID was now front and centre on everyone’s minds. My memoir had documented the lessons I’d learned over the years about having hope in the face of uncertainty, especially when it came to illness. At its heart, it’s a book about family and connection and everyday magic, and the importance of sharing our stories…because life is a wild, amazing journey filled with unexpected plot twists. Now, more than ever, I wanted readers to somehow see that my book was about a crazy, hopeful journey, (maybe even before they’d cracked the spine.) It was a BIG ask.

“I think the first thing we do is change the cover,” she said. “And then I think we should change the title, too.”

“Seriously?” I asked. “You can do that?”

“Sure,” she said. “Think about what you might want it to be and we’ll put our minds to it as well. I’ll call you in a week.”

Every time I tried to think of a new title, my mind went blank. Instead of dreaming up the perfect words or phrase, all I could think was that the first title had failed and it was all my fault. I’d pushed hard for Daughter of Family G, largely for sentimental reasons. It’d been the title of a CBC Radio documentary I’d written in 2001 about my initial decision to undergo genetic testing for Lynch syndrome, and it also paid homage to a label given to my family by medical researchers back in the 1800s. Sentiment aside, it had become clear that unless you’re part of my family or a really big geek when it comes to the history of genetics, the original title doesn’t hold much meaning.

In the end, I chose to go all the way back to the book’s original working title. Short and sweet and layered with meaning, it was scrawled on a scrap of paper and taped to the cover of the binder that held the notes for the memoir’s first draft: Before My Time. It made perfect sense.

And so, we all went back to the beginning. Designer, Talia Abramson took the new title and worked her own magic to come up with a cover that I absolutely adore. The black background and floating threaded needle remind me a bit of the Canadian edition of The Witches of New York, and the photo of my mom holding baby-me is one of my all-time favourites. (If you’ve already read the book, you’ll know that Mom and her special kind of wisdom are the beating heart of the memoir.) As for my part, I’ve chosen to do something a little different. I’m starting the paperback on the back cover with a letter from me to you, to let you know what I’d say if you were sitting at my kitchen table.

Dear Reader,

In 1895, my great-great aunt Pauline, a young dressmaker in a bustling university town, confided to a medical professor she knew that she fully expected to die young. Her bold confession led to the meticulous tracing of her family’s medical history, which in turn let to one of the world’s biggest discoveries in cancer genetics. The impact on me, a hundred or so years later? A medical diagnosis that would shake me to my core. This book is about what happened next: How I looked to the women in my family tree to help me carry on with joy, hope and a bold hunger for life.

When I was a child, I listened to the women in my family tell stories of the past while they sat around the kitchen table with my mother, sometimes laughing until they cried, sometimes sobbing from grief. They spoke of relatives who lived before I was born—people who faced great hardship, who died too young. These women, like the women in my fiction, stared down death, looked after the sick, and conversed with fate. They read truth through story, even when others didn’t wish to hear it. This is how I learned that stories have power—to make sense of the world, to give voice to dreams, to nurture hope and banish fear.

Pull up a chair and I’ll put the kettle on. I’ve got a story to share.

Ami McKay

So… the covers are different but the guts are the same. For the rest of 2020, you can still get the hardcover edition of the memoir as Daughter of Family G (with its oh-so-beautiful end papers!) And starting in Spring 2021, the paperback version of my story, Before My Time will hit the shelves. I hope you’ll find your way to it, whenever you might need it. And as always, a million thanks for reading my words.

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