Molly MacGregor works as a part-time shoe store clerk in the Largest Mall in the World while dreaming of writing a novel.
Her prosaic life selling ‘low- to mid-quality footwear’ is neither as eventful as that of Moll Flanders, after whom she is named, nor as romantic as that of her idol, Jane Austen.
Nonetheless, the mall has its own odd ecosystem – from the bench near the dolphin tank where she eats tuna sandwich lunches, to the Ottoman Empire shop (‘No Chairs! Only Ottomans!’), to the clothing store that attracts men with mullets and a penchant for shiny suits.
The fictional Molly is the protagonist in the debut ‘anti-romance’ novel Molly of the Mall: Literary Lass & Purveyor of Fine Footwear (published by NeWest Press) by Western alumna Heidi Jacobs, MLIS’06.
Jacobs has just been awarded this year’s Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, the book selected from among 84 nominees. (Runners-up were CROW by Amy Spurway and Cottagers and Indians by Drew Hayden Taylor.)
“I don’t think I intended to write a funny book,” Jacobs said, adding she thinks her writing voice has echoes of her mother Merle (Whyte) Martin, who died just as the novel was going to press. “I think my mom, who was absolutely the funniest woman ever, would have loved it.”
The novel has been in the works for a couple of decades and bears some semblance to Jacobs’ experiences as a young adult studying and working in Edmonton. Its plot percolated throughout her BA and MA in English at the University of Alberta, into her PhD at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and through years of teaching English at the University of Windsor.
It crystallized even more when, mid-career, she grew restless.
“I remembered that the happiest people I knew at work were librarians in their jobs. They absolutely loved their work,” Jacobs said.
So, she applied to Western’s Master of Library and Information Science program.
“(Before that) I wrote my dissertation and taught three classes and I thought I was busy. That was nothing. I went to library school and had what felt like 30 assignments a week.”
Her librarian insistence on accuracy found a good outlet in the novel, set in Edmonton in the mid-1990s. “I fact-checked everything,” she said.
Her colleagues at the University of Windsor, where she is information literacy librarian, didn’t know she was working on a novel until she began tweeting that it had just rolled off the presses.
Nor do most of her colleagues know she is an avid baseball fan. She and her husband Dale Jacobs have co-authored a book on their 50-ballgame journey a couple of years ago to amateur, minor and major league ballgames within 100 miles of their home. 100 Miles of Baseball is due to be published early next year.
“I’m multi-faceted, but it works for me,” she said.
Her father, Jerome Martin, phoned her when Molly made the Leacock shortlist. But when she was announced as winner, she was floored.
“I went for a run early in the morning and was sitting on my deck drinking water and then I realized I’d missed a call from the Leacock people. I was pretty shocked. I had my money on the other two.”