Thoughts from Susan Sontag


, , , , ,

I love listening to authors talk about writing. Ever since the first time I bought one of those annual compendiums of advice from authors, along with lists of places to publish — complete with addresses, what they look for and what you could expect to be paid — very little has pleased me more than to sit down with an essay by an author (and it doesn’t matter whether I’ve read or even heard of the author, what matters is that the author is interesting) about what it takes to do what he or she does.

That’s because even though I have been erratic about writing myself, these people are my people — I know what they’re talking about when they talk about blocks, or desire or crippling self-doubt (though to be fair they rarely talk about that part in these feel-good pieces). They give me hope that I could do it too, which I guess is the point, to encourage people to write. Honestly, sometimes I think I’d be happy never to write another word as long as I could be surrounded by interesting people talking about books and writing. I’d just drink it all in, happy to be part of the crowd.

Maria Popova at has written this essay about things Susan Sontag had to say about writing, some of which I find quite compelling. For example: “To write is to know something. What a pleasure to read a writer who knows a great deal. (Not a common experience these days…) Literature, I would argue, is knowledge — albeit, even at its greatest, imperfect knowledge. Like all knowledge.”

Part of my own crippling self-doubt is the fear that I don’t know enough to write a book. That I haven’t read enough, haven’t thought enough, that my thinking is too pedestrian to produce a really good novel. I’ll guess we’ll see about that, won’t we?

Popova also quotes Sontag as saying, “Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape. Alternatives to the plot ought to be felt up to the last moment. These alternatives constitute the potential for disorder (and therefore of suspense) in the story’s unfolding.”

This rings so true for my WIP. I thought I had come up with a fairly interesting sub-plot (because all novels need sub-plots, right?) and have been gently discouraged from giving it all the air I think it should have. In my relaunch I’m keeping it as a bit of background noise, but may, as the story goes along, make it the central focus. I haven’t decided. May not decide until the last minute. It would be an entirely different book that way. That’s part of the rush, not knowing.



Blood on the page


, , , , , , ,

One thing I’ve fought with as a writer is distance. I’m an intensely private person, I don’t like to reveal myself to others. I have the heart of a journalist, which means I want to know others’ stories, I want to suss out what makes them tick, I want to peer into their souls, but unless I know and trust you well, I’ll only give you tiny glimpses into mine. If you spend enough time with me eventually I’ll give you enough glimpses for you to construct a reasonably true picture, but I’ll make you work for it.

And I think one of the reasons why my first real attempt at a novel didn’t work was because despite the intimacy of some of the subject matter, I worried too much about how people I know and who knew me would receive it, and more importantly, I worried about how much I was telling the people who knew — and didn’t know me — about the hidden places of my soul.

With my current WIP I’m consciously trying to, as Ed Tarkington says in this essay, leave some blood on the page. This novel only works if the reader can understand my main character’s predicament, and that can only happen if I slice open a vein, take the reader back to the place and time where I got the inspiration for the story and the personal experience that made the idea hit me with such force that I knew it had to be written down, and knew how I might write it.

There’s a little piece of every novelist in every novel; this one will have more than a little of me in it; even if the main character is not me she is a product of the sum total of my experiences and knowledge. I’d be interested in hearing how other novelists deal with the dilemma of having to bleed over the page while still managing to keep some sort of distance.


The theory of omission


, , ,

A friend just pointed out this article from the September issue of the New Yorker by John McPhee. What a lovely piece of writing, and surprisingly germane to my work in progress, which at this early stage is an exercise in what I can leave out and still expect the reader to understand about the world I’m creating. Too much exposition ruins a thing, and too little is just as harmful.

I need a wife


, , , , ,

I’m probably not the first person in the world to think that the reason a lot of the greatest writers and painters and artists were great was because they were married to women who took care of the household, made sure they were fed and watered and had all the supplies and free time they needed to ply their crafts, rubbed their shoulders — and other bits, of course — as needed to reduce tension and allow the great artist to get on with it. Those women were almost certainly underappreciated by their great men, but it’s entirely likely that those great men wouldn’t have been great without them or without someone — a mother, sister or housekeeper — to fill that role.

Any woman in the pantheon of greats pre-1950 was usually a nun or in possession of some family money, meaning they wrote either in relative secret and as they were able given their social obligations, or for the glory of god. And either way there was someone else doing the heavy lifting — not, as a rule, a man, it must be noted.

Like I said, I doubt if I’m breaking any new ground with this observation. Camille Paglia would have you believe that women’s minds simply don’t incline to greatness (just try reading Sexual Personae without wanting to land a punch on that smug little kisser of hers, I dare you); I say it’s more like they’ve been unable to give the fullness of their brains over to the task in quite the same way, with quite the same social licence, as men. (I ask you, how many great male artists have there been since women’s liberation?)

One of the reasons I’ve procrastinated on my work in progress is that I know that in order to do it well I have to go to a couple of places emotionally that I don’t want to revisit. I haven’t dealt with them so much as put a nice cloth over them and arranged them in a place where I don’t have to look at them, and if I do happen to look in that corner, I don’t really see them. It works for me that way. But to get to the nub of the idea behind the WIP, I have to expose the nerve and touch it a lot.

Yesterday was the first time I’d had time and headspace to write in a few weeks, and it was also the first time in my relaunch of the WIP that I needed to lift up a corner of that cloth and poke. And I got there, I really did. I was sitting here at the table, typing and crying, tears running down my face because it HURT to go there, and I was focused on trying to make that work for me when I noticed my furnace was making strange noises. It’s winter here, and while yesterday was a mild day, that is not going to last. My heart started pounding, my system shot full of adrenaline, on top of whatever else it had been pumping to help me write that scene. I spent half an hour or more on the phone on a Saturday afternoon trying to arrange for a repairman with someone who was more interested in selling me a maintenance package than dealing with my immediate concerns; and then another seven hours waiting for the repair guy (three hours until his window opened, and he arrived five minutes after his four-hour window closed). I shovelled the walk, made sure there was no ice; I cleared a space around the furnace so he could get to it; I made supper; kept an eye out the window because my place can be hard to find from the street and I knew I might have to flag him down (which I did);  and for about an hour or two in there I actually wrote a few words but I’d lost the thread. I was feeling all the feels, that aching pit that I’d uncovered on purpose, alarm, adrenaline, stress, plus nausea and a splitting headache.

And there it was. Another good day of writing derailed by the concerns of running a household. I can’t imagine how people with kids manage, unless their spouses take care of it all for them. Which takes me back to my original thesis.

I need a wife, or someone to run my house, take care of problems as they arise, pay the bills, make sure I’m fed and watered and that my muscles aren’t getting too tight from sitting hunched over the keyboard for hours on end.

It really doesn’t pay well and the gratitude will be heartfelt but erratic. Anyone interested?


Spider and snow


, , , ,

She saw the spider with her right eye, and the snow with her left.

The spider. THAT spider. She’d already tried to catch it at least five times, a huge daddy longlegs she’d named Charlotte that seemed determined to set up housekeeping in that particular corner. She was afraid it might be preparing to give birth – as many times as she’d knocked it down it had come back; she’d never known a spider to be so obstinately territorial. But its favourite spot was too high for her short arms and legs to reach unaided and when she tried to poke it with her broom — handle or brush — she always ended up knocking it down to the grey floor, where it immediately blended in and disappeared. One time she’d knocked it into the sleeve of her sweater and though it must have come right back out she’d felt it crawling all over her skin for hours.

And snow. Last night’s had been the fall’s first real frost, and now here was snow, with a week left to go in October. It lay lightly on the ground, and wouldn’t stay, but still. She was battle-weary after last year’s long, cold winter; seven months of bone-chilling cold and snow frozen so hard it crunched like styrofoam under her heavy Sorels. Those boots had seemed a bit much when she’d bought them a year ago but they’d seen daily use from January to April. Rated for below 30, they hadn’t been warm enough on those -40 days standing in bus shelters obviously designed by someone who’d never had to take public transit. She’d yearned, not for the first time, for the winters of her youth in the Maritimes, where the Atlantic Ocean tempered the bite of the cold. But they’d had it bad last year out there too, with driveways and even some roads looking like canyons cut through mountains of snow.

Then she’d blinked and summer was gone and now it was snowing again.

She put a damp towel over the fondant she’d been rolling, brushed sugar off her hands then went to the porch closet for the stepladder. No sense trying the broom again, or the flyswatter, which had likewise proved no match for the nimble Charlotte. Mind you, one spider was a drop in the bucket, her basement was infested with the eight-legged creatures. Cobwebs blanketed the rough stucco of the ceiling and draped down the painted concrete block walls in the laundry room like some kind of kitschy Halloween decoration. Walking into the root cellar she always had a sense that thousands of tiny eyes were watching her every move. (She made a mental note to tidy up that space before she added new provisions at the end of the month.) There was no sign that the spiders caught flies or other bugs to earn their keep (she had a vague suspicion they lived on dust) but they certainly thrived down there, and every so often one decided to take up residence in the upstairs bathroom, or the office.

The snow caught her eye again as she set up the ladder under Charlotte’s latest web. The white stuff had figured prominently in the year she’d dubbed “the troubles.” Money trouble, health trouble, relationship trouble. Hardly anyone she knew had been left unscathed.

Snow had caused the roof of her gingerbread Victorian to leak — no ice damming thank god, no damage to the shingles or the attic, it was just the weight of the snow that caused the leak and once the snow was gone, the leak stopped. The leak — the money she’d had to spend to get the snow off the roof — had been her unexpected expense in March, but every month of the year had dug into her pocket to some unwelcome degree. In January she had put her 19-year-old cat to sleep and that seemed to have drained her mojo, setting her up for a year of unrelenting bad news. And her grief over the cat was still raw, months later. For nearly two decades she and the cat had been each other’s primary companion, but she couldn’t explain that to people whose lives were replete with friends and family. Talking about that kind of interdependence made her sound like some crazy cat lady. Not getting another one right away was probably a mistake. People like her needed cats to ground them. But that was her life story, really – love more than was advisable, lose the thing she’d loved, and take so long replacing it that it, finally, seemed impossible to do so at all.

She’d tried not to wallow in her grief but winter had been so cold, and she’d been so broke, that hibernating was all it seemed possible to do. Isolation became both what she needed and what she was left with. Maybe she’d go to the SPCA in November, when she’d be feeling stronger.

The one good thing about that snow out there, she thought as she grabbed a tissue and took a first heavy step up the ladder – had thought it when they discussed the weekend forecast at work on Friday and her co-workers had been horrified at the threat of snow: winter was coming and with it Dec. 31, and the end to what had been a particularly horribilus annus. She was going to crack a nice bottle of Champagne in two months and drink a hearty toast to the end of that sonuvabitch. She knocked the wood of the door jamb and looked quickly over her shoulder to check that Karma wasn’t lining up another kick at her backside for prematurely anticipating that her power would be back at full strength by the end of the year.

She reached out with the tissue toward the spider, but succeeded only in knocking it down onto the floor, where it once again became invisible.
She swore, sighed and climbed slowly down, favouring her bad ankle. She wiped her nose – it always seemed to be dripping these days – and tucked the tissue in the sleeve of her sweater before putting the ladder away. Forget the spider. Trick-or-treaters were coming and she had to get ready.

Random authors: Timothy Findley


, , , , , , , , , , ,

I met Timothy Findley in late August/early September 1999, when he was touring to promote Pilgrim, his penultimate novel. He died in June 2002.

Findley was challenging for a number of reasons, not least of which was my fear of speaking to Great Canadian Authors, which itself stems at least in part from my longtime dislike of Great Canadian Literature. The rest comes from imposter syndrome. That fear had led me to turn down an opportunity to interview Mordechai Richler (for which I am still kicking myself) after he published Barney’s Version, and if the chance to speak to Margaret Atwood had ever arisen, I would probably have run and hidden away. There are interviews you can phone in, there are interviews you can completely bung up, and survive. There are interviews that can be really interesting conversations that don’t translate well into an article. None of those options is open to the interviewer of a Great Canadian Author. One of my guiding influences as a book reviewer was having watched, years earlier, Pierre Berton destroy the young blond journalist interviewing him on TV because she had obviously not read any of his books, except perhaps the one he was promoting at the time. I swore that would never be me — hence my avoidance of Richler. I have read considerably more Atwood but was terrified at the thought of being pinned by one (or worse, both) of her beady dark eyes, examined and found wanting. I figured Atwood would suss me out as a complete idiot within minutes and proceed accordingly.

I expected Findley would be less frightening, overall, than other giants of CanLit, and I’d read a few of his novels, which is why when the chance to interview him came up I accepted it. But another reason why I found the interview challenging was that I didn’t like Pilgrim. It’s been nearly two decades since I read it and I don’t remember what it was I disliked about it, precisely, just that I hadn’t been engaged by the story of a man who cannot die and is doomed to watch history repeat itself across the millennia.

The first thing I said to Findley was that I was afraid of him. He quite disarmingly admitted to being a little frightened of me too — any encounter with a stranger is fraught with the possibility of disaster, he said. And the two of us proceeded to smoke like chimneys in the living room of a tatty little hotel suite in downtown Toronto (nicer hotels were apparently reserved for less-renowned but better-selling authors), with his partner Bill in the bedroom listening, perhaps, for sounds of distress, and keeping an eye on the clock.

We started out talking about the role of art in the world. He saw the job of great art as instructing humanity how not to repeat the errors of the past. It was an interesting take and relevant to the book, so that was the theme of my article in 1999, Findley’s rage over the failure of art.

I always went with a list of questions for what was generally an hour-long author interview. But the interview had to be going really badly for me to refer to them. Better interviewers than I am would probably shudder at my technique (well, let’s call it my technique, as if it was something I thought out, because that sounds better, right?) of sitting down with the author, turning on my tape recorder and letting the conversation flow freely. But I believed, and believe, that when I was able to engage with the author I got a far richer sense of him or her than would the person who remained tied to a list of pre-fabbed questions. I wasn’t always right (I thought this one author, whose entire selling point was his young age, and I had had a quite original interview until I read the same quotes, nearly word-for-word, in a story one of the Toronto papers got to press before I could publish mine), but I always enjoyed the free association of ideas when they happened.

Which is why although Findley and I started out talking about art and the book, we took a very interesting tangent into whether monsters can have artistic vision and create great art, and from there jumped into a conversation about religion.

”The artist is only human, but the vision may be a given that no one else has access to, I do believe that,” Findley said on that long-ago afternoon. ”There are so many artists who are themselves monstrous as people.” He mentions da Vinci and Jung, who both play roles in Pilgrim, as well as Rodin. ”The point is there are these visions and in a sense it doesn’t matter who they come from.”

Take, for example, religious visionaries such as Jesus, or Moses. ”Any of the great figures in any of the great religions, they were probably relatively monstrous as well. In order to get it said, you had to batter your way through to the speaking place to begin with, and then to be heard you had to shout other people down and you had to push people aside.” (Plus ca change, amirite?) And sometimes the things that they say get written down incorrectly, or misinterpreted.

”Paul was monstrous. He destroyed Christ. He destroyed what Jesus was truly about. This is where my hatred (of religion) comes from but I wouldn’t pick up a gun and do anything about it,” said Findley, who was a gay man long before gay was cool, though as an artist – first an actor, then writer and playwright – he was protected by a community that was more welcoming than most. ”I write books.”

Findley told me he didn’t believe in god, but did believe in spirit.

”There’s something that Toynbee wrote that I’ve always admired,” he said. ”His notion was that it was in the moment when Western civilization moved in the direction of creating one god only, that we were doomed. Because prior to that moment everything was holy. Every tree, every blade of grass, every thought, every dog, every person, every finger on your hand, it was all holy, it was all infused with holiness. There were individual gods for all these things and everything was therefore respected in ways that we no longer respect things. (With) one god, you can (be persuaded), ‘Well, I think you should go and kill all the Muslims. And why not go and do it now, in my name’.”

Findley said he had his most spiritual moment in the Canadian far north. ”I’ve never gotten over standing one day in this place and looking up over this landscape that had no ending. Sure the sky was above it but I knew it went so far beyond what I was seeing. I thought, there’s what we have the audacity to call ‘nothing there’ but what is there is the life of all those trees, all those animals, and the continuity of the state of what nature is about. … That was a magical moment for me because I understood partly what spirit is about. I’m connected to that, this is me standing here in this and we are one. … Maybe I will die and discover there’s some awesome, horrifying throne, (and I’ll say to God) ‘Well, we had an argument, didn’t we? I don’t like you.’ But I don’t believe that for a moment. I think it is itself, and that’s what spirit is, it is absolutely, utterly itself. And the greatest manifestation of self, nothing standing in the way or saying hide this bit of me, is nature. And every once in a while a remarkable human being joins that vision or that nature and is utterly revealed as someone who says, ‘I understand.”’

I just reread the story I wrote from that interview, and 16 years later I still think it was pretty good. Here’s how it starts:

”Timothy Findley travels with a little menagerie of toy animals. Sebastien’s the oldest, a teddy bear with all the fur loved off him, whose nose Findley rubs for good luck. There’s a little red cloth bear, a turtle, a wind-up dolphin and the latest addition, a little pink toad that Margaret Atwood gave him when he launched his latest book.

”The motley assembly on the corner of the table, and the sentiment they imply, are an odd counterpoint to Findley, sitting in his hotel room, the long ash of his cigarette holding on with a prayer, expounding on the ways in which art has failed humanity.”

Frankly it was that little menagerie that enabled me to settle down and talk to him, one human being to another. I continued to be terrified that he’d discover I’m a complete idiot and not worthy of his time, but knowing he travelled everywhere with stuffed animals brought this literary giant back down to a size I could deal with. He may have been a great thinker, a great writer, but he was also, in the end, a little old man who was just a bit precious — in all senses of that word.

Unfinished story No. 1 – No Peeking


, , , ,

We were over at Jimmy and Beth’s for Sunday night supper and cards and Jimmy and I had put back a few beers and I was feeling contented and smooth and that’s probably how I got the nerve up.

Beth and June had just finished the dishes and Beth had sent my wife back to sit while she wiped the counter one more time — I swear that woman always has a cloth in her hand, wiping down something — while Jimmy shuffled the cards, and I said, casual, ”Do you ever hear something tapping on the air?”

Everything stopped, like I’d hit them all with a freeze-ray gun, Beth in mid-wipe and Jimmy in mid-shuffle. June had been examining a spot on her blouse from where she’d spilled something at supper, gauging the possibility of being able to get the stain out, and she went all still too, looking a bit ridiculous, holding her shirt out from her chest and squinting.

Finally Jimmy moved, finished sliding the cards in between each other then put them down on the table in front of him, centred the pen on the scoring pad, picked his bottle up and took a swig of beer. Beth attacked a spot on the counter then folded the cloth neatly and laid it over the tap, keeping her back to the rest of us for the moment. ”For god’s sake, Pete,” June said, letting go of her blouse. ”Not that again.”

Now, I’d never mentioned this to a soul in the world but June, but she’d heard enough the first time I talked to her about it, thank you very much, and swore me to silence thereafter. She hasn’t been a church-going woman since our little boy died but refusing to believe in God is not the same thing, after all, as not believing, and after a lifetime of priestly exhortations against witches and spirits and things that go bump in the night, she’ll have no truck with those as want to discuss the possibility they might exist. And if you ask me, and I’ll take this thought with me to my grave, June’s main problem with talking about it was that she was convinced our boy Mikey was haunting us and she was half excited and mostly scared shitless at the thought.

Anyway, I was busting to talk about it, and Jimmy and Beth were our best friends — we’d stood for each other at our respective weddings and our families had grown up together — and if I couldn’t talk to them, who could I talk to?

”What was that?” Jimmy asked, carefully lining up the cards so the edges matched precisely, not looking up from the table. Beth had turned around and was looking at June and I couldn’t tell whether her raised eyebrow meant June had already hashed it over with her, or she was irritated that June hadn’t mentioned it.

Now I could have just said ”nothing, not important” and we’d have gotten on with 45s and had our normal Sunday evening and June and I would have gone home and she’d’ve given me the cold shoulder all night for embarrassing her in front of our friends, and next Sunday they’d’ve come to our place and we’d’ve gone on like I’d never brought it up, but like I said, I’d had a few and I was busting to talk about it, so I took a breath and said:

”I’ve been hearing noises. I hear tapping in the air in the middle of the living room, sometimes I hear dishes rattle in the kitchen when there’s nobody out there, and sometimes when June’s on the night shift and I’m in bed going to sleep I hear someone calling a name — not my name.”

”Jesus, buddy,” Jimmy said, trying to laugh but not quite managing it. He picked up the cards and started shuffling them again. ”I’m cutting you off. You’re drinking too much.”

I started to protest, but to my surprise Beth was there first. Surprised me because she wasn’t jumping in to give me a hard time, she was aiming her guns at Jimmy.

”Oh no you don’t, buster,” she said, hands on hips, looking straight at him while he looked everywhere but back.

”What?” he asked, innocent like a big dog standing next to an upturned flowerpot.

”You know good and well what. I’m not going to stand by while you make Pete feel foolish when you and I’ve been hearing the same damned things.”

Well that was news to me and to June both. ”You never said…” June sputtered, and that’s when I knew the girls had already had a chat and Beth had been less than forthcoming. Them and us were great friends, we did everything together, but some are always a little more equal than others and they did like to have the upper hand in all of it. Earned a little bit more, car was a little newer, TV a little bigger, and not in competition but just because that’s the way the cookie crumbled. You get used to the hierarchy — both of you do — and so it’s hard to admit to equal footing sometimes. Beth was no doubt holding her peace until she figured out the lay of the land and could give us the answer to the question. They couldn’t have known I’d bring it up tonight — I hadn’t known I’d bring it up tonight — but Beth wasn’t one to turn down an opportune moment, though it seemed Jimmy was willing enough to, if she’d’ve only let him.

No such luck.

Jimmy put the cards down again, making sure the deck was equidistant from all edges of the scoring pad before he pushed his chair back from the table and gave the boys some air. I’ve seen Jimmy’s balls and I know they’re no bigger than average but the way the man spreads his legs you’d think he had grapefruit swimming around in his shorts trying to make room. Hot grapefruit at that. The spreading ritual — often accompanied by a certain amount of rearranging — was his way of taking the time to think before he spoke.

”It’s like Beth says,” he said, finally. ”We’ve got noises too.”

Beth picked up the cloth and came and joined us at the table, wiped at some invisible stain and said, ” We’ve ruled out everything. In the kitchen we thought it might be a mouse or squirrel…”

”But there’s no droppings, and none of the boxes or bags has been chewed on,” Jimmy said.

”I thought it might be the house settling, when it got cold and the furnace started coming on,” I offered, and they shook their heads. We all knew what that sounded like and that wasn’t the sound. A furnace will tick and a house will creak but this was tapping. And dishes moving.

”And I know your mind plays tricks on you just before you go to sleep,” June added, ” but we hear the same name being called.” There — that was the first time to my knowledge she’d admitted that she’d heard any of it.

Our house was a couple streets away from Jimmy and Beth’s, so it was unlikely to be something geographical, and when it came down to it the possibility that we’d be haunted by a ghost at the same time was slim to none. June had relaxed in her chair and I’m pretty sure it’s because the same thought had occurred to her — Mikey might haunt us, but he had no reason to haunt Jimmy and Beth.

Jimmy gets a look on his face sometimes when he wants to say something but doesn’t think he should, and it was all over his face now.

”Jimmy, you look like you’re a baby shitting your diaper,” I said. ”Out with it man, before you explode.”

”I peeked,” he said, a little sheepish, looking up and out of the corner of his eye at Beth.

”Peeked at what?” she asked.

”At the noises.”

”You peeked at the noises? Who’s drinking too much now? Use your words, babe.”

”You saw what’s making the noises?” I asked.

”No. But … I saw where it lives.”

”Jesus,” I said, and ”What the…?” asked Beth, more angry that he didn’t mention it to her than curious about what he’d seen, and June kept looking around her, ready for trouble to pop up beside her.

”Where?” I asked. Jimmy got up from the table and we all stood with him. He led us into the middle of their living room, his eye on something only he could see.

”There’s a trick,” he said. ”You have to look without looking, look out of the side of your eye and around the corner…” and sure enough, he was doing some weird gymnastics with his eyes, skewing them into the side of his head while leaning forward and peering to his left like a driver in a neck brace trying to see if something was coming up on his blind side.

”Is it there?” whispered June.

”Yeah,” Jimmy said out of the right side of his mouth, beckoning with his right hand for us all to come closer. So there we were, Sunday night in October, near full dark out, the four of us lined up, looking out of the left corner of our eyes and peeking around a corner we couldn’t even see until … we saw. June near fainted on the spot, she grabbed my hand and squealed but she did NOT look away, and neither did Beth and neither did I.

And there they were. There WE were, only around the corner to the left the four of us were sitting at a card table in the living room (we’d stopped doing that years ago, and now just stayed in the kitchen for our Sunday night games). One of them — alt-Jimmy — looked up when June squealed, smiled and waved, alerting the others to our presence. They smiled and waved too, all except alt-Beth, who rolled her eyes, then the four of them went back to their cards as if people from another dimension peeked in at their card game every day.

We were in no way as calm about it. We kept staring. They talked amongst themselves for a bit, laughed at something alt-June said, but studiously ignored us for as long as they could. Finally alt-Pete looked up, and smiled, and then waved ”bye-bye” instead of hello. Pointedly, you know? Letting us know they had boundaries and we were being impolite.

Well, none of us was brought up in a barn so we all stepped back and let out our breath, but unlike when we first entered the room, we could see the corner Jimmy had looked around to see them in the first place. And we all knew we’d never be able to unsee it. And I knew June and I would be looking for the one in our living room as soon as we got home.

We stood there for a minute grinning at each other like idiots, half in shock and half excited, but it was like we didn’t want to talk about it in front of the visitors, so we tiptoed back out the kitchen and grinned at each other like idiots there. Then Beth put the kettle on and brought out a plate of squares, and June went to get the cups, and I took my place at the table again, wishing I still smoked, because that would be just the thing to cogitate over, a nice king-size cancer stick, inhaling impossibilities and exhaling disbelief. Jimmy sat down at the head of the table, gave the boys some air, picked up the cards and passed them to me for the cut.

”Really? We’re going to play cards after that?”

Jimmy shrugged. ”Everybody’s doin’ it.” I cut and he took the deck back and started dealing the cards for 45s. ”Except they were playing rummy.”

Warm books, cold books


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Books by Scandinavian authors are cold.

Egregious generalization, that, so let me qualify the statement by saying I have found books I’ve read by Scandinavian authors to lack a certain je ne sais quoi that warms me as a reader. I’ll also admit to having found the same preternatural coldness in the movies of Ingmar Bergman, which I find unwatchable.

As a child I was a big fan of Denmark’s Hans Christian Andersen, and as an adult I have read (and enjoyed) books by Peter Hoeg, Jostein Gaarder and Stieg Larsson, to name a few. But a thread I have followed through crime writers Larsson, Henning Menckel and Mons Kallentoft, all Swedish, is a chilly distance placed between the writer and the characters. It’s almost as if the writer is observing the activity as the reader is doing so, but refusing to engage with it.

This fall I read a series of four books by Kallentoft featuring a Swedish police detective — an alcoholic, as the best literary detectives seem to be; a single mother; a woman trying to get over a failed relationship in part by having excellent casual sex with a man she has no intention of letting get close to her. Unfortunately, Kallentoft doesn’t let the reader get close to her either. I found it very difficult to care about her or her problems, or her cases. But I can’t quite put my finger on what I found off-putting, why I felt as though Kallentoft and the rest were talking at me instead of to me.

It could be a question of translation, god knows that’s hard enough to get right and I’m particularly sensitive to the bad stuff — my brain stumbles on cracks in sentence construction and trips over inappropriate word choices (the Kallentoft books were translated either by someone from England or who had learned English there but whose cultural references were dated by about 15-20 years, IMHO).

There’s also a question of a relatively spare writing style, and I wonder if that’s because the writers were journalists (as Larsson was) or fans of Hemingway, or maybe it’s a cultural reserve.

As a reader I’m not necessarily a fan of the florid — I had to read a Barbara Taylor Bradford book years ago before interviewing her and the adjectival enhancements nearly killed me. Every noun had its adjective, every verb its adverb. There was barely a word that wasn’t qualified in some way. I still shudder to think about it. But I do enjoy a little lexical avoirdupois as long as it doesn’t descend into glossolalia. One of the things I loved about early Anne Rice was that opening one of her books was like falling into a velvet cushion — it was lush, it was louche, sensual, but not, for all that, over-written.

One of my current favourite authors is Christopher (now Chris) Brookmyre who I’m certain successfully fought off all attempts at editing quite some time ago — at least I’m pretty sure Christopher did, Chris seems to have been vanquished somewhat and I’m not at all sure that’s a positive thing. I’ve tried to recommend Brookmyre to friends and some of them have tried to read him but it is the rare brave soul who finishes even the smallest of his books. Brookmyre (Christopher) would go on fabulous rants about retail blowjobs and the sad, stupid c**ts who worked for a living to buy better minivans so they could live in the suburbs with all the other people who were too stupid to dream big. These could go on for PAGES, and I loved every word of them. Because while they’d go on for far too long, not a word would be wasted; they were polished gems and ridiculously funny — in the eye of this beholder, in any case. Check him out, I dare you. Contact me for recommendations, I’ll tell you where to start and the one book you must avoid (even though it has some of Brookmyre’s funniest dialogue).

I’ve known for a long time that I don’t read for the same things the critics and judges of book prizes do. I just want a good story well told, and sometimes I’ll take a mediocre story told in language that I find beautiful — at least in the moment; my tastes have of course evolved over the years. I read a book years ago by Paul Anderson called Hunger’s Brides that as a novel was a great heaving train wreck but my god the writing was glorious. It made me salivate, made me despair of ever coming close to achieving that level of polished perfection. I find literary novels, for want of a better word, cold. There is in many of them that same quality of aloof observation that distracts me in Swedish crime novels; that sense that the author doesn’t want to muddy his or her hem by getting too close. I’m currently reading Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt. The characters are nothing if not earthy, and Byatt doesn’t shy away from telling us so, but there’s still a distance between her and the action, and therefore between the reader and the narrative.

The reason this interests me so much is that while I revel in wordy novels, I can’t seem to write them. I’m not saying I can’t write long; I CAN by god, write LONG, what I don’t do is fill in the spaces. I don’t naturally describe things. My first stab at my current WIP looks like a play, almost. My training as a journalist explains some of my abhorrence of purple prose and filigree, but my natural inclination seems to be to write books that as a reader I wouldn’t pick up. And when I do make a conscious effort to overcome my linguistic reticence and add colour, instead of emulating the swinging conversational style that enchants me in a Christopher Brookmyre novel, I write words that fall with a thud on the screen. Songs for a tin ear. It’s possible that this is something that changes as the work in progress is polished, written and rewritten, and it could be that this is just first-draft syndrome and my problem is that I half expect it to be perfect the first time.

My question is, do I go against my instincts as a writer and write woodenly the warm book I would be more comfortable reading, or go against my instincts as a  reader and write a spare, cold book I wouldn’t like?

Diana Gabaldon: Drums of Autumn


, , , , , , ,

Quite often the lede for an article jumps out at you during the interview, something the author says gives you the ‘in,’ the logical starting point. Sometimes you don’t see it until you’re transcribing the interview (which is why you should always do it yourself; reading someone else’s transcription of your interview doesn’t give you the same kick).

My interview with Diana Gabaldon in March of 1997, when she was touring in support of her fourth novel, Drums of Autumn, wasn’t like that. Reading through my transcript, I find a lede in every new paragraph. The interview must have gone long, that’s the only reason I can think of to explain the page of handwritten notes that I found with the typed transcript — I must have run out of tape. And even on that page of handwritten notes there were three things I could have used to lead the piece off.

Gabaldon was at that point a very successful novelist at the top of her game, brimming with confidence and intelligence; you got the impression that she knew exactly who she was and what she was capable of. But of course she questioned herself — her original training was in science, and science teaches you to question your assumptions. The way she got her start as a fiction writer is probably legend by now, but it starts off with her questioning her ability to write. She was interested in writing, and had been hanging out in a chatroom with other writers. She had been writing fragments — practice pieces — with no idea of a story to tie them together but had never had the nerve to post any of them until she got into an argument with a guy who assured her that since his wife had had three children he knew what it felt like to be pregnant. Gabaldon, herself a mother of three at the time, was pretty sure he didn’t. So she posted a bit she’d written about a pregnant woman telling her brother what it was like. And, as they say, the crowd, who’d been following the argument closely, went wild.

‘My husband says I am congenitally incapable of losing an argument and he’s about right,’ she says. ‘So everybody who had been following the argument read the piece and they all came rushing back and said, ‘this is great, what is it?’ And they said put up more of it. So I began putting up more, a bit at a time, as I wrote it, if I had a chunk that seemed to stand by itself.’ This happened over the course of months, and as time went on people started getting more and more excited about her chunks. They told her she should think about publishing it, so she asked how she should go about doing that, and they helped her there too.

Recently I read an article by a science fiction writer who was going on about all the things writers these days need to do to promote their work — apparently the publishers don’t splash out on publicists anymore, at least not for the less successful authors, who are supposed to do a great deal of the work themselves. This guy was going on about needing a blog, having to have a Twitter feed, about the active social media promotion you have to do, including regular interaction with fans  — I was left wondering when he’d have time to write, or to work at a day job and write. I asked Gabaldon 18 years ago, when it was still the world-wide web and not truly the internet yet, whether she’d advise aspiring writers to find an online community and she said yes.

‘You can gain quite a lot of insight of how the business works as  a whole, the business both of writing and the business of selling your manuscript, which are two different things. It’s also very comforting to talk to other writers when you realize that absolutely everybody is struggling with the same things you are — that nobody has the time to write, everybodys’ kids pester them, everybody has domestic crises that occur while they’re trying to finish this chapter… Writers as a whole are very, very helpful to other writers, beginners or other people who are at a less advanced stage than themselves.’

I really liked what she said about the similarities between science — she has a Masters in marine biology and a PhD in quantitative behavioural ecology — and writing fiction. In my limited experience, you can do arts or science, but it’s a rare mind that’s good at both. Her experience is somewhat less limited — she says they’re two sides of the same coin. Both artists and scientists have the ability ‘to draw patterns out of chaos.

‘A scientist will look at random data and say, ‘I think this may be what’s happening.” What distinguishes a good scientist from a great one is the quality of the questions they ask, she says, ‘and that depends on your insight into the patterns that underlie your data. A novelist, likewise, is distinguishing patterns from random bits of data, the difference being that there you’re assembling the random bits yourself, rather than looking at patterns that necessarily exist. … When you’re writing a novel you’re embodying your hypothesis, whereas in a science question you construct the hypothesis and then you enter the realm of objectivity where you test it. That’s where science and art depart, once the hypothesis is made.’

Other things I could have said in my article 18 years ago and didn’t:

  1. The time travel — and the location — in Outlander were inspired in part by a Dr. Who episode. She was sitting in church the next day thinking about the episode — one of the old Patrick Charlton shows — ‘and I don’t claim divine revelation but it was in church.’ She decided that since it didn’t matter where she set the book, as long as she was writing, she’d put it in Scotland in the 18th century. ‘So I went out to the parking lot after mass and dug a piece of paper out from under the front seat of my car and that’s where I began writing Outlander.’
  2. The British publisher that bought the rights to Dragonfly in Amber demanded she cut 300 pages. She didn’t want to. Her husband asked, ‘Is it worth 20,000 pounds for you to be unhappy every time you look at that book for the rest of your life?’ She said no to his question, no to her publisher, and her publisher blinked. ‘No one lays violent hands on my manuscripts,’ she says.
  3. She was engaged to another man when she met her husband, sat next to a tall redhead in the french horn section of a marching band and went home and gave her fiance back his ring.
  4. Her husband is the body double for Jamie Fraser ‘from the neck down.’
  5. She used to play with margins and fonts so her publishers wouldn’t figure out how long the books were.
  6. She doesn’t read romance novels.
  7. She started writing the books to suit herself so she doesn’t feel constrained by genre limitations. ‘A lot of people that I talk to that are aspiring writers in both romance and other genres, they say, ‘well, I want to do this with my book but I’ll never sell it if I do.’ I wasn’t worried about that because I never thought I was going to sell it anyway. So I didn’t back off one inch from anything. I decided I’d let Jamie be raped and played it straight. I did it as honestly as I possibly could and consequently it’s a very powerful book. I would never have done that if I’d been writing an historical romance that I expected to try to sell to anyone.’ So maybe, I asked, it’s best to start out with no expectations? ‘Yes, absolutely. And having done that I also have absolute integrity. And having succeeded with that I saw no reason to back off so I never have.’

Novels are tricksy bastards


, , , , , , ,


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing. Probably because I just finished Yann Martel’s 101 Letters to a Prime Minister (with apologies to the friend who gave it to me a couple of years ago for my birthday, I needed to be in the right frame of mind). The project that gave rise to the book is controversial — and there’s no question it takes a certain amount of hubris to come right out and tell a guy you think he’d be a better overall person if he’d just pick up a book once in a while (the unspoken assumption being that you’re pretty sure he hasn’t read a novel since school), and then to choose a reading list for him.

I studiously avoided literature classes in university (except for a couple of Russian lit classes, and I only took those because I adored the prof) because I never liked being told what a book was about — I expected and expect the author to do that, though with time and tide I realize that any book is only about what I as reader think it’s about, authorial intention be damned. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t like listening to, or reading as, intelligent people talk intelligently about books. In each of his letters Martel talks about why he chose a book, what he found in it and what he hopes the prime minister will find in it. He talks about reading and what it does for one’s mind and soul. He talks about books as living, breathing entities in a way. I wanted to read just about every book on the list — partly in the faint hope of sounding as interesting as Martel some day.

He quoted one of the authors he wrote about as saying (and I don’t think I’m making the connection up though it’s entirely possible that I heard this somewhere else in the couple of weeks I spent reading this at lunch and on the bus) that writers write because it hurts not to. This, in my limited experience, is true, though we all have our own ways of dealing with the pain of not doing what we really want to do.

For the first time in a long time I find myself with no daily requirement to write — I’m not pushing out three market stories a day to newspapers across the country on deadline; I don’t have to come up with two blog posts a week for my association magazine. I’m not coming home with a brain so wrung out from over-exertion that it can barely remember how to turn on the TV. That’s one part.

Another part is that while the world around me prepares for hibernation, I’m suddenly feeling very creative. I’m bursting with ideas for blog posts; I want to revisit some of the interviews I did with authors years ago and see what I’d write with that same material now; I have ideas for stories; and most exciting of all, a re-entry point for the novel I put aside four years ago after about 250 pages because I didn’t like the direction it was taking and I couldn’t figure out how to make it stop and get back on the road I wanted it to follow. I want to write all the words, and at the same time paint the house and redecorate and do crafts and… It’s the closest I come to being manic and, being me, I take it all with a sort of laid-back inner frenzy. I’ve been trying for years to dial myself back to zero enough to form thoughts and while I’m not quite at point nul, my brain has quieted enough to think — though it’s still racing ahead of me and wants to be on page 75 instead of page 1.

This isn’t my first novel — not even my second, if you count my attempts to make a living writing Harlequin romances (note the ensuing un-stellar career in journalism). The first I sent to a couple of beta readers, who kindly said very little about it. One suggested it wasn’t quite her thing; the other, a writer himself, congratulated me on having written a novel but didn’t actually say anything about the content. I no longer have access to the email he sent but it seems to me he may have suggested I put it in a desk drawer and think about it for a while. Which is what I did. I took it out again a few years later and decided my mortification over its awfulness was somewhat misplaced; some of the writing is really good and I think it explored some ideas worth taking up again, if I ever work up the nerve.

My second reader, Robert, had a fabulous first novel, and it was his undoing in a way. He’s not the first writer to have presented a polished gem to his publisher, and then failed to deliver the same again right away. His book had been written and rewritten until it sang off the pages but, since all the work was done when no one was looking, seemed to have sprung fully formed from his head. His second novel — I’ve always thought of it as unfinished somehow, even though it had a beginning and a middle and an end and all the moving parts it needed. What it lacked, of course, was the smoothing effect of time. The careful cutting and shaping. His third novel, as far as I know, languishes unfinished in his desk while he works on paying gigs to feed his family. And that’s a shame because he’s an interesting guy and damn good writer and if I ever go ahead with my revisiting of interviews, he’s one I’ll look at.

I started this blog five years ago after vociferously poo-pooing the idea of blogs, all those people writing down their brain farts in the hope someone might notice. I still think it’s a little ridiculous, which is one reason why I have only posted one entry since 2010. But I need to write. It hurts not to. And writing to myself is unsatisfying. So I’ve decided to manage my pain in a different way — by cutting it off at the source. We’ll see how long this manic phase lasts. Novels are tricksy bastards, they go where they want to go, and sometimes, if you don’t nurse them carefully, great ideas flicker and die between the brain and the page. I’m hoping this blog will keep that from happening again.