Today I finished the second draft of the Sulphur Springs book (the title of which is now uncertain.) I'm okay with where it's headed, but I'm not excited by it and it's been harder work than usual. Frankly, I decided to write this one for the money, though I've become very fond of the 82-year-old protagonist, Violet McAdams, who returns to a childhood haunt to solve a very old murder. It's a non-gay mystery, which could make it marketable, though I'm still toying with publishing it under a woman's pseudonym. With the payment I get for most of my books, it's the love of writing and my obsession with perfecting things that keep me going. And having finished LAKE ON THE MOUNTAIN in the fall, it will take a lot for me to get excited about anything again, as I know that one will be hard for me to better.
In any case, I'm going to leave it for now and return to work on THE HONEY LOCUST. If I go to Mexico this year, for the first time in more than eight years it will not be to the Pacific coast but to the Atlantic--to the Yucatan and south-west to Chiapas--which will help with some finishing touches in my research for that book. If all goes well there, I hope to be off to Bosnia in the spring for the rest of the research.
Today I finished the second draft of the Sulphur Springs book (the title of which is now uncertain.) I'm okay with where it's headed, but I'm not excited by it and it's been harder work than usual. Frankly, I decided to write this one for the money, though I've become very fond of the 82-year-old protagonist, Violet McAdams, who returns to a childhood haunt to solve a very old murder. It's a non-gay mystery, which could make it marketable, though I'm still toying with publishing it under a woman's pseudonym. With the payment I get for most of my books, it's the love of writing and my obsession with perfecting things that keep me going. And having finished LAKE ON THE MOUNTAIN in the fall, it will take a lot for me to get excited about anything again, as I know that one will be hard for me to better.
PROUST & COMPANY: I’m thrilled to report the inaugural night of Toronto’s newest literary salon was a great success! The series, hosted by Glad Day Books, Josh Bentley-Swan and me, was inspired by my recent trip to Paris as well as stories of Sylvia Beach’s famed SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY. Michael Rowe read his delightful and intimate childhood portrait, MY LIFE AS A GIRL, from his 2008 Randy Shilts Award-winning essay collection, OTHER MEN’S SONS, while Beverley Stone read a selection of short passages from her stunning literary debut, NO BEAUTIFUL SHORE. The readings were memorable, moving and entertaining, as was the musical accompaniment by dynamic jazz duo Geri Aniceto and Omel Masalunga.
Join us for the next evening on Feb 7 from 8-10 PM, (above Glad Day Books at 598A Yonge St), featuring Nairne Holtz (THE SKIN BENEATH) and S. Bear Bergman (BUTCH IS A NOUN.)
The event is always free!
Recently I returned to work on my MYSTERY AT SULPHUR SPRINGS, a “cosy” (god, I hate that word), which I’m considering publishing under a woman’s pseudonym. It’s about an 82-year-old woman who returns after 70 years to a spa where she inadvertently became involved in a murder at age 12. Here she will discover what really happened. Because of the split narrative, I’ve had trouble finding a suitable voice for both parts. The opening is dramatically Shakespearean, with ghostly hauntings and spirituous visitations not unlike the opening scene of HAMLET, as the 82-year old Violet struggles with her memory of past events that will compel her to return to the spa. But the real-time past sections felt too childlike, almost like a Nancy Drew mystery. Writing YA is just not in my scope. I struggled so much that I nearly put it aside again. It was another Shakespeare play, via a Verdi opera, that helped me crack the code. Yesterday I bought a live recording of Callas’s MACBETH. The introductory essay describes how, in the sleepwalking arias, Callas brings a childlike simplicity to the calculatingly evil Lady Macbeth. It was this duality that helped me realize what I needed to do. In my narrative, the 12-year-old Violet is a well-behaved girl who unwittingly unleashes forces of evil when she substitutes a note hidden in a hole in a wall. While Violet’s consciousness is innocent, the consequences of her actions are not. It’s precisely this duality I need to bring out in the earlier narrative voice.
The heartbreak of budget cuts: sadly, we did not make it into the Features First program, although we were unofficially told that had it not been for financial cuts forcing a shrinking of the number of positions available, we would have.
In any case, Proust and Company is now my focus as we prepare for the first in the series of readings with musical entertainment. If you're in Toronto on the 6th of December, be sure to drop into Glad Day Books for some fun (not to mention free food, alcohol, music and more....)
Big News: first, I received notice that both of my books (A CAGE OF BONES and THE P-TOWN MURDERS) made it into the AFTER ELTON TOP 50 GAY BOOKS list. Yay, and thanks to all those who voted for me!
Second, Shane and I have been busy arranging the inaugural event in PROUST AND COMPANY, an intimate salon in the tradition of Sylvia Beach and her 1920s Left Bank literary evenings. So far we've lined up Michael Rowe (the 2008 Randy Shilts Award winner for OTHER MEN'S SONS), Beverley Stone (NO BEAUTIFUL SHORE), Elizabeth Ruth (SMOKE) and Nairne Holtz (BENEATH THE SKIN), with more to come.
The event is held in the loft space over Glad Day Bookshop (598A Yonge St, Toronto) on the first Saturday of every other month, from 8-10 PM. The first event is December 6. For more invitation visit our website: www.proustandcompany.com.
I hope to see you there one of these days!
I love Gus van Sant, but I don’t think I’ve ever loved or been as impressed by any of his films as much as MILK, about assassinated gay activist Harvey Milk. It didn’t hurt that Sean Penn gives one of his most understated and brilliant performances of a career full of great performances. Or that Batboy nemesis James Franco has finally got himself a good role to exploit those talents (and those baby-boy good looks) of his. This is a film full of emotional resonance—for Milk as much as for the cause—and the depiction of the times is about as good as it gets. If there was a single wrong note, I couldn’t spot it. I came out the year Milk was assassinated and still remember the impact of his murder as well as the outrage and the surge of activist fervour that followed. It’s tellingly sad that Harvey Milk helped defeat Proposition 6 in 1978 (a bill that would have denied jobs to gay and lesbian teachers in California) and 30 years later the film opens with the success of Proposition 8, which denies the right for same sex marriage in the very same state. Have we gone that far backwards?
For once, that slumbering giant to the south got it right. Has an American president (elect) ever reached out, not only to ‘black and white, Asian and Hispanic, young and old, straight and gay, abled and disabled’, but also to the ‘darkest corners of the earth’? Extraordinary! It was as though the spiritual child of John Lennon and Mahatma Gandhi just took office. It was a great speech given by a great orator. Gone were the meaningless old platitudes of ‘my fellow Americans’ and ‘the greatest country on earth.’ What replaced it was truth and sincerity. Even to a skeptic like me, it was a revelation, and a humbling one. Has greatness been thrust upon us?
Whoever said writing isn’t a practical profession? I’m amazed by the useful things I learn researching my stories. For instance, in the last few weeks I’ve come across three yards with aconite growing within reach of the street.
Don’t know what aconite is? It’s a deadly poison, also known as monkshood. All parts of this plant are lethal, and if you pick it with a cut on your hand, you might die. If you ate even a tiny piece of it, you definitely would. A year ago I wouldn’t have known what it looked like, but I do after having written my literary thriller, LAKE ON THE MOUNTAIN.
Once you know what they look like, the (usually) deep blue flowers are easy to spot because they resemble miniature bishop’s caps or those peaked hoods medieval monks wore. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Aconitum_variegatum_110807f.jpg) Some of the more virulent varieties are blooming now and will keep doing so until the frost kills them.
We know not to eat mushrooms in the wild, but few of us would hesitate to pick flowers. When I point it out, most people are shocked to learn what they have growing in places accessible to both children and pets (not to mention unwary gardeners!)
Since returning from France I’ve been working sporadically on a new novel, IN THE PLACE OF JOY AND LAUGHTER. Yesterday it finally started to open up for me, revealing more and more of what the characters are about.
Sometimes I write with a game plan and a fully conceived plotline in my head, while at other times I simply go with my intuition. This is one of the latter, and the going has been slow. I don’t feel I am suddenly about to start zipping along, but now I have a much better sense of where things are heading.
Part of the difficulty is that there are three concurrent timelines and three separate characters who don’t fully link till later in the book. It’s been a challenge keeping the book feeling like a whole entity rather than a series of aimless wanderings.
Apart from being in Paris, two moments stand out from my recent trip to France. By chance we stumbled on the highway along the Normandy coast where the D-Day invasions took place. Omaha Beach, at Saint-Laurent-Sur-Mer, was one of the prime locations for the Allied landings under Churchill and Eisenhower. If it had been in North America, Disney and McDonalds would have set in, Yuppies would have gentrified and over-built the area. Here, a single monument and a statue suffice to commemorate the scarcely imaginable battle that took place there on June 6, 1944. Apart from sand and sea, there is little else than silence stretching along the shore.
Heading back through the Loire Valley we stopped at Illiers-Combray, famous for having served as the setting for parts of Proust’s monumental À LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU. It’s a small, unimposing village, whose church, memorialized in the same book, is much smaller and far less spectacular than Proust’s rendering—not a surprise. Still, the village has an otherworldly charm, especially by twilight, despite its total lack of pretension or even any seeming interest in the tourist trade.
As always, Paris is a whirlwind of sights and sounds, grandeur and beauty.
While Prague and Budapest can compete with it for majesty, no other city can compare for the richness of its cultural history. Paris was where the 20th century was, that eccentric raconteur of concision Gertrude Stein declared. As usual, she got it right.
Where else can you say Proust and Joyce shared a cab at that corner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway drank in that bar, while over there Charles De Gaulle gave his historic speech on the liberation of Paris from the Nazis?
Where else can you spend an afternoon visiting the graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, and then pop over to visit 19th century near-neighbours Frederic Chopin and the unjustly neglected Luigi Cherubini (whom Beethoven declared the greatest living composer)?
That’s my Paris. And so much more.
In between filling out those all-important grant applications (Writers' Reserve, etc.) and getting ready to leave for Paris, I've been working on my latest novel, In The Place of Joy and Laughter, a fairly serious literary work about life, death and dancing. (One of the characters is a choreographer.) It seems I've been spoiled by thriller writing, because suddenly I've been reduced from averaging 2500 words a day to something more like 250, if that. I forgot how slow going writing can be at times, though the trade-off is finding this book is producing some of the best prose I've ever written.
As many people who know my writing can attest, I have a strong interest in Buddhist teachings. On the other hand, my dislike of anything dogmatic or doctrinal stops me from declaring myself to be of any one faith. This authorized biography of the 14th Dalai Lama is the latest in a series of books exploring the man behind the legend of Tibet's reincarnating spiritual leader.
DALAI LAMA--MAN, MONK, MYSTIC by Mayank Chhaya (Doubleday 2007)
Although this is an ‘authorized biography,’ it reads more like a political treatise on the state of occupied Tibet. No doubt this was part of the Dalai Lama’s reasoning behind authorizing the book as he heads into his later years after nearly 50 years of exile from his homeland—more fuel for a fire threatened with extinction on his death. The few solid glimpses of Tibet’s spiritual head are welcome here, but they’re no more revealing than much of the other material by and about him. If His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama comes across as god-like, it’s more through his lack of everyday human foibles than anything else. There’s little that’s magic here, as one might hope, but that’s to be expected from a writer whose introduction all but apologizes for having an interest in a religion whose main credo centres around reincarnation. It’s typical of a leftist humanist outlook that looks to the human intellect as the highest creative force in the universe—a vast mistake, as our current world state shows. If more people cared about the Dalai Lama’s teaching and less about China-occupied Tibet, we might solve many more of our problems.
Wow. If there’s anything I detest more than grant applications, I can’t think of it. I’ve spent the last week and a half applying for the National Screen Institute’s Features First program, which as its title suggests, is about the making of a first feature film. Mine is called Guilty Pleasures, a black comedy about non-identical twin brothers, Jean and Fausto, who produce Quebec’s favourite cooking show, Guilty Pleasures. When both men fall in love with their new Anglo assistant, a long-buried sibling rivalry comes to life. Like Erik Canuel’s Bon Cop, Bad Cop (which I watched this weekend for the first time), it’s a hybrid French-English script pitting the cultural differences of Canada’s two solitudes at each other’s throats. If I get into the program, it may get made. If I live through the application process.
On Friday I traveled with my friend, painter Omel Masalunga, to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo NY. The Albright has one of the best collections of impressionist and modern art in North America. You’ll find almost every influential name between 1850 and 1950 represented there, with a number of well-known works to accompany them. Deservedly, it’s considered a treasure.
So what was that gathering outside the gallery on its back steps this Friday afternoon? There were a number of musicians, many of them drummers, as well as a bassist and a bagpiper. The music was a funky fusion of new and old world sounds that rose to an almost deafening roar while an upright piano was hoisted by crane over a baby grand. The crowd grew agitated as the upright was suspended for several suspenseful minutes.
Since this is America, I told myself, people will clap and cheer at the destruction. Sure enough, when the upright crashed onto the grand, the crowd roared with something like approval. Had it occurred in Canada, we would have laughed nervously to make sure we were seen getting the joke and then turned away with a sense of guilt at participating in something obscene and possibly even anti-art.
What made it all the more obscene, and personal—at least to me—is that the upright was a Kimbal spinet—my piano. Looking around, I spotted one other person who seemed to be experiencing the same moral conundrum I felt on being there. A three-year-old boy, perched on his father’s shoulders, had his fingers resolutely plugged into his ears for the entire event, removing them only after the destruction was largely over (apart from two demolitions experts further taking apart the pianos with sledgehammer and axe.)
I grew up in the ’60s, and understood—or at least felt I understood—the urge behind such anti-corporate, pro-environment acts as the destruction of cars by groups like The Who. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but attacking that specific aesthetic made sense to me, while this failed to register as a statement of anything worthwhile or even comprehensible. Explain?
I was privileged to open the weekend’s WRITING OUTSIDE THE MARGINS festivities along with Brooklyn-based writer/performer Hadassah Hill. She had the south stage and I had the north. I spent the entire half-hour reading from THE P-TOWN MURDERS.
Foot traffic was slow to pick up (despite some fairly renowned names in the early hours of the readings), though things were rolling passably well by early afternoon. Still, it seems a sad statement on Toronto’s sublime artistic indifference. On the other hand, the talent was sparkling and the hosts (Ryan G. Hinds and Kristyn Dunnion) were engaging.
One of the best things about participating in a writers festival is the opportunity to meet new writers and reconnect with others you haven’t seen for a while. One of the newbies was Geneva St James, a BC author with an infectious reading style whose MADE FOR YOU is a fun ride. It was also good to hear Anand Mahadevan read from his wickedly funny THE STRIKE, though ironically a nearby lightning strike cut short his reading. RM Vaughan read from his new memoir-in-verse, TROUBLED, reminding us what it’s like to hear poetry read by a talented reader, and the sensational Nina Arsenault thrilled and trilled with her personal take on beauty and mortality.
The festival also helped answer a question I’ve had hanging over my head for 40-plus years. What do I want to be when I grow up? Now I know: I want to be John Cameron Mitchell. I want to be someone so talented, genuine and insightful that he can drop all facades and just stand in front of a crowd and talk about his personal life, joke about his intimate sexual explorations, discuss his artistic successes and his conservative family upbringing without a hint of ego, or better yet, complaint.
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt myself in the presence of someone so inspired and inspiring. I tried to meet John several times during the festival, unsuccessfully, but just as I was leaving I spotted him sitting on the patio at Zelda’s, introduced myself and gave him a copy of my book. I was a fan of SHORTBUS when I saw it and now I’m a fan of its creator too!
A CASUALTY OF WAR, edited by Peter Burton (Arcadia 2008)
A CASUALTY OF WAR is the delightful new collection of gay short fiction by renowned English editor Peter Burton. Despite its title, the book’s themes are multifarious and range from hardcore wartime tales to infectious comedy. It opens with a Kafkaesque piece, WHEN THE TIME COMES, by writer-director Neil Bartlett, and continues with a heart-warming tale, TROUBLED, about nascent love in the punk era, by novelist/critic Sebastian Beaumont. It includes work by three Canadians, including me, Patrick Roscoe and Ian Young. Roscoe’s MARIPOSA, BUTTERFLY reads like a Spanish fairy tale while Young’s THE BUGGERY CLUB is a real nostalgia piece for anyone out and living in London in the ’80s. Thankfully, the collection also contains works by distinguished writers from an earlier era, including ATTI INNOMINABILI by Michael Davidson, a bittersweet look at adolescent sexuality, previously published to a limited readership in the ’60s. Among my favourites (they’re all favourites, really) are Stephen Saylor’s KINDER, GENTLER, with its emotionally-charged ending, Cliff James’s THE VIOLENCE OF THE GARDENER, with its superb noire twists, Richard Zimler’s perceptive take on gay/racial tensions, A DRY PAST, and the truly wonderful comic piece, AWKWARD RELATIONS by Richard Haylock, the English novelist who died recently at 87. This latter, a sort of CAGE AUX FOLLES set in ’80s Morocco, alone is worth the price of the volume.
Yesterday I woke with a germ of an idea for a short story. It seemed so slim that I was about to toss it off and ignore the impulse. Something made me sit down and write it. A few hours later I’d completed a 3400-word short story entitled Mouse, about two brothers, one of whom is a drug addict and the other of whom knows the secret that turned his brother into an addict. I don’t recall ever finishing an entire story in one sitting, so that’s a first. It still needs refinishing, but so far it seems to be a solid effort.
What I've been reading:
NO BEAUTIFUL SHORE by Beverley Stone (Cormorant Books)
God, I love a woman who can swear! And Beverley Stone is right up there with the best of them. This beautiful, disturbing book is one of the most honest tales of contemporary Newfoundland I’ve come across. Part-TRAILER PARK BOYS and part-THELMA AND LOUISE, it’s an account of teenagers Bride Marsh and Wanda Stuckless’s attempt to leave out-port Newfoundland for life in Toronto, a challenge much bigger than it sounds. Bride is the sexy one who gets hit on by men, while Wanda is the entrepreneurial tomboy who sells dope to make her passage ‘away.’ Both prove hindrances to their goal. A sharp blend of the comic and tragic, Stone’s story is filled with wisdom, insight and some very deft writing.
Despite being a comic book, THE DARK KNIGHT has moments of greatness. A good deal of it’s due to the acting, but there are wonderful moments of writing and musical scoring and let’s not forget the camera work. The movie is so viscerally visual that for someone like me who suffers a fear of heights (and pretty much a fear of anything moving over 5 km an hour, if that has a name), at times it’s torture to endure. The movie isn't entirely Heath Ledger’s, though he is its brightest focus, being totally at ease and so clearly relishing his role as the greasy, green-haired Joker in a performance more than a little reminiscent of Brando. One of the things I loved about Ledger was his chameleon talent, how he changed so completely from film to film, also like Brando. How different are the roles of Ennis del Mar and the nerdy College-boy look he sported as Jacob in THE BROTHERS GRIMM from this and any of his other roles. And even if the film wasn’t interesting, you knew Ledger would be. Overall, this movie is a bit long, but you don’t mind because it means extending time with Ledger for nearly the last time. This must be what it was like to watch James Dean in GIANT a year after his death, though THE DARK KNIGHT is far more enjoyable than GIANT.
Despite being based on a comic book, THE DARK KNIGHT has moments of greatness. In the larger sense, a good deal of it’s due to the acting, but there are wonderful moments of writing and musical scoring and let’s not forget the camera work. The movie is so viscerally visual that for someone like me who suffers a fear of heights (and pretty much a fear of anything moving over 5 km an hour, if that has a name), at times it’s torture to endure. The movie is not entirely Heath Ledger’s, though he is its brightest focus, being totally at ease and so clearly relishing his role as the greasy, green-haired Joker in a performance more than a little reminiscent of Brando. One of the things I loved about Ledger was his chameleon talent, how he changed so completely from film to film, also like Brando. How different are the roles of Ennis del Mar and the nerdy College-boy look he sported as Jacob in THE BROTHERS GRIMM from this and any of his other roles. And even if the film wasn’t interesting, you knew Ledger would be. Overall, this film is a bit long, but you don’t mind because it means extending time with Ledger for nearly the last time. This must be what it would have been like to watch James Dean in GIANT a year after his death, though THE DARK KNIGHT is far more enjoyable than GIANT.
A friend who is a Dante scholar recommended WANTED. I assume he had his reasons, and they are probably all Angelina Jolie. I have my own fixation on James McAvoy, and was glad to see the film for that reason. I left of two minds, however. I think McAvoy is potentially one of the best film actors of his generation, especially now with the loss of Heath Ledger. His first major film, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, suggested that fact, while his second, ATONEMENT, confirmed it. In WANTED, however, he seems to be spinning his wheels looking for some sort of emotional grounding that’s definitely not in the script. It’s a fun film, if you can call a film that not only glorifies but actually glamorizes violence “fun.” This is not a good-guys-forced-to-confront-evil kind of story, but a plot that actually asserts that the good guy must willingly choose to kill. It’s on morally questionable grounds at best. Story aside, I dislike the thought that McAvoy is going to be turned into another Hollywood steroid puppet like Tobey Maguire, a once-promising young actor who hasn’t done anything worthwhile since he beefed up his scrawny boy torso and began his Spiderman crusade. Despite my crush, I don’t want to see McAvoy all hotted up and toting bullet-spinning mega-guns while spouting lines that belong in a Rambo film. Keep Colin Farrell, Keanu Reeves, Brad Pitt and all the other non-actors—but don’t steal McAvoy!
Yesterday I finished the revision of A CAGE OF BONES, first published ten years ago. Not surprisingly, I found the writing uneven, with some remarkably good bits and some very embarrassing patches. My strongest objection lay with the longer descriptive passages. I was able to cut out much of the excess while maintaining the book’s simplicity and charm—it’s a story about young people, after all, and I didn’t want to change it too much. When I got to the final chapter, however, I had a moment where I thought I might not be able to re-publish it without substantial rewriting. To me it seemed excessively flowery and I couldn’t see any way around it. For comparison, I re-read the ending of Joyce’s A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST, another story about liberation of the spirit. To my great surprise, his ending is far more flowery than mine—embarrassingly so! With that in mind, I pruned the last chapter but left it mostly as it was, hoping future readers will be more tolerant than me.
In preparation for putting A CAGE OF BONES on-line as an e-book, I've been re-editing the original text. This is frequently an exercise in embarrassment. While I still enjoy the characters and their stories (and my memories of what actually happened back then), I often find myself cringing over the prose. When I wrote it I was entranced by Marcel Proust's intricate sentences and Sylvia Plath's punchy adjectives. These days, I prefer something simpler.
To be fair, I still receive fan mail for the book, which continues to sell locally as well as on the Internet. For that, I'm endeavouring to maintain its spirit while curbing some of its stylistic excess and creating something I might enjoy reading.
Last weekend I learned that my ex-boyfriend, Trent Hurry, died of a heart ailment at the age of 44-and-a-half. I was saddened by the news, though we hadn’t spoken in almost 20 years. While I’m tempted to eulogize him, I’m not sure he would have wanted that. He wouldn’t think it fair that I got the last word—something he always tried to do. I think it is fair if I reminisce about him, however, since he was an occasional inspiration in my work. If you want to read more, here's the link: http://www.jeffreyround.com/AValedictionForbiddingMourning.php
A little past midnight on Saturday I finished the new book, Mystery at Sulphur Springs, after writing 3000 words a day for 13 consecutive days. At 39,000 words, it’s just short of novel length. The storyline is fun: an 82-year-old woman returns to a hotel where she unwittingly participated in a murder 70 years earlier, ultimately solving the crime long after everyone involved has died. The results are mixed—I have a rough draft with some good material and a lot that will have to be cut or revised. I’d intended to write for one more day to bring the full complement up to 42,000 words, but something told me I’d be stopping here for the time being.
Excuse my enthusing, but the new and very sassy edition of The P-Town Murders just arrived today, with a brand new cover and all. When the original edition sold out last fall, I thought that was the end of things, but I've since been blessed by having publisher Marc Cote and Cormorant Books pick up not only the first book but the series as well. Book number two, Death in Key West, is scheduled for a fall 2009 publication.
If you haven't been able to get a copy of P-Town or if you want to buy one for someone else, you can now do that. Ordering information is available through my website (www.jeffreyround.com), and the book is available in all the usual on-line places.
Please keep in mind that your independent bookstore needs your patronage. In Toronto that would be Glad Day Books on Yonge St., Pages on Queen St. and This Ain't The Rosedale Library, now in Kensington Market. In Ottawa that store would be After Stonewall, and in Vancouver it's Little Sister's. I'm always happy to sign them, if you can find me!
Yesterday I did something I do very seldom: talk in person with another writer. I met up with writer PA Brown (LA Heat), who was in town for the Bloody Words Mystery Writers Conference. People have the impression that writers are solitary by choice, and that may be so, but there’s one thing we all love to do—talk about our writing. In my and Pat’s case, we were both happy to spend a couple of hours by the harboufront rehashing writing stories and griping about other people’s countries, specifically the one to the south, where Pat lived for a number of years. At present, Pat's working on procuring a new agent after the defection of her last one (to another job), as well as polishing a fourth novel she hopes to place as the follow-up to LA Heat. We had a good gab about writers’ habits (how long does it take to write a book, where do we find our stories, etc.) as well as the craziness going on in the land to the south (then again, when isn’t it going on?), and the likelihood that Bush and his sordid bunch will provoke a war with Iran to extend Bush’s presidency. (In the event of a major conflict, US elections can be suspended—let’s hope Bill C. still has some influence, especially if it means a better position for Hillary if the elections are held.) Then I came home and did what I always do—spend hours in a room populated by the people who exist only in my imagination.
Recently I read a post on a Yahoo gay writers group that got me fired up. Author Mykola Dementiuk had just received a disturbing review of his new books, Vienna Dolorosa and Times Queer (Synergy Press.) The reviewer called his work 'depraved, 'fanatical', 'gruesome' and lacking in 'entertaining' values.
Many writers have been judged harshly by critics, including JD Salinger who, as recently as 1979 could boast that he had written the most frequently banned book in US history (The Catcher in the Rye.) Not being unfamiliar with disturbing reviews myself, I sent Mick this response:
I wanted to pass along my three-cent's worth on critics and reviews. A well-known Toronto literary agent once told me my first novel, A CAGE OF BONES, which contains a rape scene in a men's prison, was "disgusting". I sold it to an English publisher and it was published to very favourable reviews around the world, but also one very big pan in -- guess where? -- my hometown of Toronto.
Around the same time, I wrote what I consider my finest play, THE MICHAEL RIDLER PROJECT, about a man coming to terms with the death of his sadistic lover to AIDS. It's a true and not very pretty story. It opens with an anonymous sexual encounter between two men and includes a molestation scene in which an alcoholic mother abuses her ten-year-old son, who grows up to become the subject of the play. A highly renowned and highly closeted theatre director in Toronto wrote to tell me he thought it was "disgusting." Hmmm, I thought. That sounds familiar. It was eventually produced by my theatre company and got one of the best reviews of my career, as well as one outright pan in -- you guessed it! -- Toronto.
Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, DH Lawrence and Henry Miller are names you will be familiar with. They all offended somebody at some point in their careers. Their works have even been put on trial for breaching obscenity laws. All of the things that reviewer said about your book have been said of theirs. Who knows why. Closeted critics with something to hide? Born-again former sex trade workers with a bone to pick? Homophobes with hidden agendas? It doesn't matter. It didn't stop them from writing, even if it made somebody stop reading their work. Those people aren't your readership, so why should you care? But of course -- you're a writer, which makes you an extraordinarily senstitive person. It's one of the reasons we write, after all.
I was at the Cyndi Lauper True Colors Tour two nights ago. Rosie O'Donnell was one of the guests. The first thing she told the audience was that she'd just been voted Most Annoying Celebrity of the Year. We all cheered and clapped because, in our eyes, that was some accomplishment. To know you can move someone that much that they would pan your work is an accomplishment. You may never get over your sensitivity to unkind criticism, but go out and have a drink to remind yourself that you write because you have something to say, and don't worry whether anybody wants to hear about it or not. Eventually you'll find the people who do.
To reward myself for a lot of hard work and having received payment on two book contracts (like I needed an excuse!), I took Shane to see Cyndi Lauper and her True Colors LGBT Equality Tour last night. Sheesh! I’ve never seen so many old boyfriends gathered together in one place! And who knew there are so many people running around with all the words to B-52 songs in their heads? It was a great four-and-half-hours (true!) Rosie O’Donnell was terrific, both as a comic and as a stand-in drummer for Cyndi (she danced, even!) The B-52s look and sound pretty much the same as they did 30 years ago. (I can remember the first time I heard She Came From Planet Clare, and they’re still the only rock group I know with coloratura riffs in their songs.) And Lauper’s still an adorable waif with the wickedest Boston accent you’ve evah hoid! It was a blast! But judging by some of those retro-80s fashionistas last night, we probably didn’t look as great back then as we thought we did, with our asymmetrical haircuts and wearing those day-glo colours.
When I write mysteries, I find that setting has a lot to do with inspiration. The P-Town Murders wouldn’t be the same anywhere else, just as Death in Key West (Bradford’s second, as yet-unpublished volume) needs Florida’s coral key chain to bring all the right elements together for that story. Yesterday afternoon’s trip to the Dundas Valley conservation area yielded an idea for yet another novel. At a derelict resort in a place called Sulphur Springs, I felt the glimmerings of a story about an old woman returning to the scene of a murder many years after it had been committed. As with P-Town, it was a matter of stumbling across the right things at the right time: a small boy sitting in the ruins and telling his father ‘This is my home’ felt similar to the old woman in Provincetown who grabbed my arm as a car rushed past, telling me, ‘You’ve got to watch it around here, honey. They’ll mow you down like wheat!’ I feel that if I knuckled down I could write this one in two weeks, though it would have to come out under another name, or else it won’t have a chance at being published till 2015!
Last night Shane and I went to see Jeremy Podeswa’s film, Fugitive Pieces, based on his adaptation of Anne Michaels’s beautiful book of the same title. The only other patron in the theatre was a teenage boy who seemed to have brought his skateboard along for a companion. Generally speaking, the rule of thumb is that the better the book is—the more poetic the book is—the less successful the film. Happily, that’s not so in this case, and not so by a long shot. Few directors could create a film that requires such lightness of touch without tipping into overstatement, but Podeswa manages that and much more. It’s a film about grief and loss that conveys those emotions powerfully and fully, devastating you and yet leaving you feeling whole afterwards, a film about the holocaust focusing not on the external but on the internal holocaust. It’s a remarkable achievement.
JEFF’S TOP 40
I’m at that age where I feel compelled to make lists. Not the kind of lists so you don’t come home from the grocery store without peanut butter or canned kumquats, but lists of things that matter. To me, anyway. Lists of most influential books, films, even friends and lovers. I’ll spare you the others, but here is my list of 40 books I love and which have influenced me most, both as a person and as a writer.
The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
The Cutting Room – Louise Welsh
The Hours – Michael Cunningham
The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
The Bullet Trick – Louise Welsh
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce
Remembrance of Things Past – Marcel Proust
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
A Room with a View – EM Forster
The Debt to Pleasure – John Lanchester
Naked Lunch – William Burroughs
Franny and Zooey – JD Salinger
The Emigrants – WG Sebald
The White Hotel – DM Thomas
The Last Thing He Wanted – Joan Didion
The Shipping News – E Annie Proulx
The Palace Thief – Ethan Canin
Emperor of the Air – Ethan Canin
The Buddies Trilogy (I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore, Buddies, Everybody Loves You) – Ethan Mordden
After Rain – William Trevor
The Progress of Love – Alice Munro
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? – Raymond Carver
Collected Poems – Sylvia Plath
Miscellany One – Dylan Thomas
The Waste Land and Other Poems – TS Eliot
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Edward Albee
A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams
Death of a Salesman – Arthur Miller
Collected Plays – William Shakespeare
Long Day’s Journey into Night – Eugene O’Neill
Story – Robert McKee
The Tarot – Mouni Sadhu
James Dean The Mutant King – David Dalton
Glenn Gould: Music & Mind – Geoffrey Payzant
Conversation with Glenn Gould – Jonathan Cott
Edgar Cayce The Sleeping Prophet – Jess Stearn
Assassination Vacation – Sarah Vowell
The Partly Cloudy Patriot – Sarah Vowell
The White Album – Joan Didion
Slouching Towards Bethlehem – Joan Didion
I was recently contacted by the overseer of the Special Collections department of the library at the University of Saskatchewan, which is currently acquiring the works of Canadian LGBT authors and playwrights.
I worked mainly in theatre in the ’80s and ’90s, and completed a number of stage plays between 1984 and 1998, some of which were produced by my company (Best Boys Productions) as well as other companies, including a workshop of my last play (The Visitations of Captain John, about a dyspeptic Newfoundland fishing captain) by the Canadian Stage Company with Gordon Pinsent in the title role.
To my great pleasure (and surprise), I discovered these works to be not only well written but also highly enjoyable all these years later. I also learned, again to my surprise, that I had completed a total of 11 stage plays, 8 of which are full-length.
Some of the plays were written in the PC era (pre-computer) and don’t exist as full files, but to my delight I found an early screenplay along with my stage adaptation of Jean Genet’s Funeral Rights, entitled Orders of the Day, a very dark work about the Nazi occupation of Paris, which I had long forgotten. Some day I hope to see it produced.
As for novels, I thought I’d completed 7, but if I add an early novel written when I was 18 and an unfinished work written in the mid-90s, it turns out I’m currently working on my 10th novel, of which two have been published and three more are scheduled for publication over the next two-and-a-half years.
It’s nice to be recognized by a leading institution as having done work that’s worthy of being collected, but it’s even nicer to look back and see how much I’ve accomplished.
Today was a round-up sort of day: I got word that my short piece for the Don Juan anthology was accepted. I was surprised, because the editor didn't like my first submission, a triptych of nuanced pieces called SPEAK MY LANGUAGE, showing the progress of a naive young man into a somewhat insensitive Lothario as he courts and conquers three different Italian men.
The second piece, QUEEN OF THE GYPSIES, is about a young man engaged in psychological warfare with his lover, another Lothario. I wrote it 18 years ago in the wake of a disastrous affair, and hadn't thought of it much since. I tarted it up, renamed it DON JUAN AND THE QUEEN OF THE GYPSIES, and voila--it suits the new anthology!
I also dredged up a selection from A CAGE OF BONES for inclusion in my GayWritersReaders group on Yahoo. It's a short vignette about a fashion show and its aftermath, from chapter 10. I was a bit appalled at how sloppy my writing was back then, but I edited it down and found it quite palatable.
And not least, I seem to have started a new novel. This one is no surprise, as it's something I've been scribbling towards for a few years now, based on an idea I had more than 20 years ago and which I originally intended to be a stageplay. It's called In the Place of Joy and Laughter, though that's a more recent title, the original being The Nebula Hypothesis and, more recently, The Kalachakra, and also In the Room of Joy and Laughter. We'll see if this version sticks.
Outwardly, it's like Cunningham's The Hours, with a series of incidents experienced by three or possibly four characters who all discover they have a connection, but only toward the end of the book.
Normally I have quite a fetish about the starting and ending of each work, as I calculate the time it takes to write each draft as well as my word output rate. This one feels a bit more leisurely, with no absolute starting point, though I hope there will be an end point.
A banner day today, I had lunch with my agent and signed not one but two contracts for upcoming publications from Cormorant Books. The first is for the reprint of The P-Town (formerly P'Town) Murders, and the second for the follow-up volume, Death In Key West. Afterwards we went to Cormorant to hand over the contracts and celebrate publisher Marc Cote's birthday. It was a great event and I got to meet illustrator Angel Guerra, who has given the new P-Town edition a saucy cover, as well as publicist Sheilah Hawks and production co-ordinator Coralee Leroux, Michael Rowe (Randy Shilts Award-winning author of Other Men's Sons), author Beverly Stone (No Beautiful Shore) and the well-nigh legendary, and extremely extroverted Gale Zoe Garnett, a woman of many talents and credits, not the least of which is looking impossibly young for her age. Needless to say, I was in grand company!
Yesterday, a Saturday, I was stuck in the suburbs of Toronto (Markham, specifically—don’t ask, don’t tell) for almost four hours. It was a bone-chilling experience in a number of ways—for one thing, they’ve cut down all their trees to make room for “bigger stuff.” Everything is over-sized, particularly the stores, with not a Ma and Pa—and certainly not a Ma and Ma or a Pa and Pa—store in sight.
I thought I’d allay my fears by opting for Chapters Bookstore to sit out the wait, but that was a bad choice. It was the size of a barn, possibly bigger, and mostly empty except for a handful of bored looking teenagers clustered around cell phones in an adjacent Starbucks.
I should have known on entering what the experience would entail—at the front door I was confronted by a giant store ‘waiver’ explaining why current prices for Canadian books didn’t reflect the strength of the Canadian dollar, and assuring customers that Chapters was in the fight to force publishers to offer their books at lower prices. Does anyone realize how precarious the Canadian publishing industry is, or how little writers actually get paid?
Inside, the store was all about that Superstar, Supersize, Blockbuster mentality, with categories admonishing me to ‘Go Green!’ or ‘Pick Up a Hot Topic!’ at ‘10, 20, 50 and even 80 percent off!’ How enticing. Not!
It was crammed with every kind of hot seller imaginable, but strangely enough, after more than an hour, I hadn’t found a single book I wanted to purchase, except for a knock-down of Louise Welsh’s The Bullet Trick (which I already have) and an Emma Donoghue hardcover I couldn’t afford (not because it was over-priced, but because as a working writer I don't get paid enough.)
In fact, it hardly seemed to register that I’d changed stores from the No Frills grocery superstore, with all its nicely lined up fresh produce, which I’d just left. This certainly wasn’t much of a bookstore, if the object was to entice me into reading. By comparison, I never go into niche stores like Glad Day Books on Yonge St or This Ain’t The Rosedale Library on Church St without picking up an armful of books, and having to put most of them back before I leave.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to sit through more than five minutes of Survivor (though I love Survivorman, that real deal, surviving-in-the-wild without a camera crew series with Les Stroud), or watch an entire song on American Idol or anybody else’s Idol. Like that Chapters, these shows and their misguided mentality don’t make me feel the world is a smaller place, a friendlier place, or a better place, populated by people like you and me. They just make me feel it’s empty.
It's been more than a month since I "officially" decided to spend time composing rather than writing. The results have been mixed, to say the least. Not in terms of what I've composed, but how I've spent my time. In the past five weeks I've written and completed three songs, two of which are part of a cycle (Flowers for Ana Calil) I've been creating for a friend, the ridiculously-gifted soprano Lilac Cana. (http://www.lilacsounds.com/) The unexpected third piece will remain separate, a tribute to songwriters Nick and Molly Drake. I did not, however, complete the foreseen cycle of six pieces, simply because I cannot spend as much time at the piano as I can at my non-musical keyboard. And while it's not unusual for me to spend upwards of 10-12 hours a day writing, the most I can sit at the piano is 2-3, though I once stretched that to 6 while learning the Fur Elise as a kid. The hilarious result is that, while I don't have a completed song cycle, I do have a new office floor, a reorganized house, and a newly landscaped yard. So song writing is definitely rewarding, but just not in the ways I'd imagined. I should mention I also sneaked in a new draft of the new book while "not writing", as well. I know I will complete the cycle, but I think it's time to get back to my "other" keyboard.
More thoughts on Nick Drake: the other day I stepped into This Ain’t The Rosedale Library on Church St to check out their giant moving sale as they prepare to change locations. I heard a familiar sounding voice singing a very contemporary sounding tune. It was Nick Drake, of course, though I don’t know which song it was. It struck me that here was a singer-songwriter who has been dead for more than 33 years, yet sounding as contemporary as anybody these days. How is it music stylists are only now producing music similar to what Drake recorded in the late-60s and early-70s? Did his style single-handedly influence so many musicians of today or was he simply ahead of a curve whose time has come? Certainly when I hear bands like Radiohead I hear Drake, but I hear him in other people, too. People like Kate Bush, Jeff Buckley and James Blunt. Since watching the documentary last week, his voice has stayed with me. It’s another aspect of his uniqueness. The closest I can come to defining it is to say it’s like the sound of air blown over the mouth of a pop bottle. Ethereal, haunting, unearthly. Drake’s lyrics I’m even less familiar with, but his album titles—Five Leaves Left, Layter Bryter, and Pink Moon—remind me of the title of some of Sylvia Plath’s poems. Dense, oblique and thoughtful. As though their depression had shaped their literary thought in similar ways.
Today I took a bit of time out from composing the song cycle I’d begun earlier this month, as well as from proof-reading the Cormorant reprint of The P-Town Murders. (Note the title revision from P’Town, which I’m told is not technically correct, though most P’Towners will tell you that’s how they write it.)
The reason for the diversion started last night when I watched a documentary called A Skin Too Few, about the sad, short life of singer-songwriter Nick Drake. When Drake died at the age of 26 in 1974 after recording only three albums, he was still largely unknown. Since then he’s come to be considered one of the most influential English singer-songwriters of the last 50 years. Brad Pitt narrated a BBC radio documentary about him. Volkswagon used a clip of the title track from his last album Pink Moon in one of their commercials. In 2000 his second album, Bryter Layter, was voted number 1 by The Guardian on its list of ‘Alternative top 100 albums ever’.
(The best I can do to describe his sound is to say he’s a cross between Kate Bush and Radiohead, massaged by John Cale, but that only comes close to scratching the surface. He’s haunting, intense and very intimate. You can hear him for yourself on his Official Website: http://www.brytermusic.com/.)
This morning, just before waking, I dreamed I was playing one of Nick’s songs on the piano. (I don’t know any of them, apart from what I heard last night, so I doubt it was really one of his.) His mother showed me a piece of paper with words on it, things she had wanted to say to him before he died. I was overwhelmed by their beauty. When I woke, I had the beginnings of a song in my head. I got up quickly, wrote it down in a daze and spent the rest of the afternoon scratching out an accompaniment.
It’s fairly simple, overtly lyrical, and in strophic style—none of which are my hallmarks. The song’s title, ‘So Many Souls’, is taken from the chorus:
"She said, Don’t you know there are so many souls
just looking for the light? And a little bit of bright
is better than none at all…"
My literary mind wanted to call it ‘A Bit of Bright’, not to be too obvious, but the Muses insist that it’s called So Many Souls, so that is how it will be, though I’ve subtitled it A Bit of Bright in brackets and dedicated the number to Nick and his mother Molly.
Flowers For Ana Calil, my intended song cycle for noted Canadian soprano Lilac Cana, is going apace, as they say. I’ve completed the first of the cycle, The Rose Family, with lyrics by Robert Frost. It’s a short, lyrical piece in a major key to introduce the cycle, though other songs will stray far from the confines of sunny tonalities. The second piece (Sunflower Sutra by Allen Ginsberg) is a craggy old work I’m wrestling down to size, trying to find both the inner rhythms and inner rhymes that stay stubbornly hidden on first reading. The piano accompaniment is almost demonic, like Schubert’s Erlkönig or Dukas’s The Sorceror’s Apprentice.
I'm having a lot of fun with these pieces. I used to compose far more, but have had to stop and make time to do this. My ideal sort of song is along the lines of Gabriel Fauré (Les berceaux, Les roses d'Ispahan), Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs and the shorter pieces of Elliott Carter (Three Poems of Robert Frost, including The Rose Family). Once the songs are finished there may well be a recital, which could take place in Toronto or possibly at my recent discovery, UWO's Pride Library (if we get an invitation). The latter would make for a very intimate setting, but then these songs will be intimate for the most part.
Two readings and a name change: I was privileged to appear as a reader at two recent events. The first, Java Knights, is a recurring evening at the nearly-famed Gladstone Hotel (probably the closest Toronto ever came to having a Chelsea Hotel, though as far as I know nobody famous ever OD'd there.) The last Tuesday of every month is a queer-themed night (this one on queer literature.) I was thrilled to see people emerging from the sleet and rain and wind to fill all the seats in the Art Bar and hear five of us read from our books. The other readers included Pat Capponi, David D'Heane, Todd Klinck and Debra Anderson (the latter of whom I was among the first to publish in the Church-Wellesley Review). Check out the link for upcoming events: http://gaywest.905host.net/files/javaknights.php. Hosted by CIUT's Bryen Dunn, it's fun and well-attended, so you never know who you might meet there.
The second evening took place in London at UWO's Pride Library, a dedicated wing in the DB Weldon Library, one of only two queer-themed libraries in the world (the other being in India.) It felt a little like walking into Oscar Wilde's drawing room--plush chaises lounges in exotic coverings, an orchid-covered table and books books books. The only thing missing were the peacock feathers. The library started off a decade ago in the office of James Miller, UWO's professor of medieval literature, and has since grown and been given a room of its own. Although it's getting to be well-stocked, they're always looking for donations: http://www.uwo.ca/pridelib/. Of all the readings I've done, this one was the most enjoyable. The audience (including many women who had come to hear Nairne Holtz read from her literary-thriller, The Skin Beneath) was highly attentive and asked some great questions afterwards. I also noted a couple of writing celebs in the group, including PA Brown (LA Heat) and Emma Donoghue (Landing, Slammerkin, etc.)
And finally, if you're familiar with my Blog you'll note I've changed it's name. Perhaps I'm just getting more realistic (or more Realist), but having taken stock of all that's been in my life, and all I've missed (children, a steady pay cheque, RSP contributions, to name a few) I've decided (in as non-bitter a way as possible) that A Writer's Half-Life is a more apt description of what I and others like me really have. But would I give it up? Not for a second!
Happy Spring! I returned from Mexico with a solid second draft of my new book, Lake on the Mountain. Since then, I've completed a third draft, adding a few finishing touches before sending it off to Marc Cote at Cormorant Books for his input before I go any further with it.
One of those finishing touches was the (highly unexpected) addition of chapter titles to all 27 chapters, adding an ironic counterpoint to the content, but not in any sense of dissecting the content. So, for instance, the third chapter is called 'Coffee and Donuts' because of a manic meeting at 4 AM between the protagonist, Daniel Sharp, and his depressed former-neighbour at a local donut shop. My favourite title, 'My iPod, Your iPod', is given to a chapter in which Dan's 15-year-old son, Ked, is accused of handling stolen goods.
All good fun, and in keeping with the book, though I don't mean to imply that the theme isn't serious. Now that's it's mostly done, I think I can say what it's about: the solving of a 20-year-old cold case in which a man left his family and disappeared, the only clue being a bicycle that went missing at the same time.
Next up: song composition!
Leap Year's Day, and I finished the second draft of Lake on the Mountain, my new literary thriller. The ending came quickly, after repositioning a few passages in the final chapter. And suddenly I was there. The last few chapters still feel rough, but at least the book can be read from beginning to end, and make sense all the way through. Now I can go home happy.
A couple of frustrating day's writing, as my month-long hiatus comes to an end, and knowing I'm close to being finished, but struggling over little things in the last couple of chapters. Every now and then it feels like I've lost my focus, then suddenly I discover something really exciting and that propels me forward again.
Another awesome couple of days' writing. Today I exceeded 100,000 words, some 25,000 over my estimated target (not to mention the publisher's preferred length) from several months ago. But the writing is strong, the story compelling, so I hope I can get away with it!
Something quite awesome happened today because I went to Starbucks (which seems to be a frequent source of inspiration for me.) Because I ran out of coffee, and because it’s Sunday and the small neighbourhood cafes are closed, I went out for my much-needed cuppa jet fuel-cum-soy latte. On the way back, the bells were ringing ten at the grand cathedral in the heart of Puerto Vallarta. Not being comfortable with the accepted dogma and practice of religious worship, and having coffee in-hand and a baseball cap covering my unruly hair, I decided to have just a peek and move on, but the Muse would have me stay. As I passed the main doors of the church and headed towards a kiddie version of same, I heard a tremendous round of hand-clapping and voice lifting, and was literally inspired by a phrase ‘no communal joyfulness and shouting voices’ that spoke loud and clear. The Muse was onto me. And because I never travel without pen and paper, I sat on the steps and let flow what will likely become a fairly colourful passage on the psychology of religion in my new book, Lake on the Mountain, which takes as a background theme the dour Scottish Presbyterianism that founded much of modern-day Anglo Ontario.
Content with that, I started to leave, but as I paused at the next corner I was over-taken by a baseball-cap wearing teenager, and felt a second Muse encouraging me to sit. This next passage began, ‘He is the kid next door, the one with the Popsicle smile and the ten-cent grin, skateboard beneath one foot…’. This is the other theme of the book—boys who grow up lost, or lonely, and sometimes end up on the street, which is the realm of my protagonist, a missing persons investigator. So if those two passages make it into the final draft of the book, I’ll have to remember that the essential defining theme of Anglo-Canadian Presbyterianism was written in sunny, tropical Mexico on the steps of a Catholic church. God bless us all!
Since the third book of the Bradford Fairfax series is set in Puerto Vallarta (Vanished in Vallarta), it behooves me to visit a few of the scenes of action while I’m here. One of those is the much-lauded Blue Chairs Hotel (renamed in the book—don’t worry, you’ll recognize it.) Shane and I were fortunate enough to meet two couples from Washington (which they call ‘DC’) who were staying at the hotel, and we saw two rooms, one grand and beautiful, the other not. I’m sorry to say the hotel’s current state isn’t impressive (a mouldy smell, rusty overhead fan blades, cheap bathroom mirrors), and that despite its pricey rates and reputation as a much-sought after gay resort. Be that as it may, I was able to get a better view of the rooms, and the balcony where Bradford confronts his fear of heights to avoid being caught breaking into the room of two suspects.
A second potential scene, since discarded for a more appropriate mountaintop escape, was set in the canopy tours, as Brad and a bad guy zigzagged through the jungle, battling while suspended over treacherous-looking but spectacular canyon vistas. Shane got us invited to participate in the making of a promotional video for the gay market, saving us the fee ($79) and making us some fun friends at the same time. (An amusing note: the stars of the video were PV’s famous drag troupe, the Dirty Bitches. We were just background.) Like Brad, I share a fear of heights, but the views were so breathtakingly beautiful, and the guides so amusing (and good-looking) that I didn’t have time to be afraid. And afterwards I wanted to do it all over again! That is how we sometimes escape the small boxes of our minds—if we’re lucky.
Another important scene (which I’ve already experienced, but would like to repeat) is the snorkeling scene at Los Arcos, a triptych of domed rocks jutting up from the sea near the small town of Mismaloya, one of which has an arc that can be sailed through. If we can do it inexpensively, we will. It’s also interesting to note that the walkway to the radio towers at the top of the mountain in downtown PV is literally a minute above the casa where we’re staying. A walk up here on the last trip inspired a major scene that takes place in a fictional monastery at the top of the hill. I didn’t go all the way to the top this time, but I did go up quite a ways. The name of that street is Aldama. We had no idea we were so close when we rented this place on the Internet.
A new draft is an opportunity for reflection on where I’ve been and where I might be going, both with the story and my characters. It allows me to decide which new doors to open and which old ones to close if they no longer suit my purpose. It’s not unusual to discover a character referring to something before he or she actually knows it, a little slip in time that completely eradicates the purpose of the scene I’ve carefully constructed around it. Sometimes I don’t recognize it for many drafts.
It’s also a time to explore those magical intuitive impulses that come from nowhere (how else to explain it? what else to call them but magic?) as I get more connected to the material. Recently I discovered the perfect last name for a psychiatrist in the new book. Or perhaps it discovered me. I’d given him the first name ‘Martin’, which seemed to fit, because for me it has overtones of self-righteousness and intellectual coldness. I can’t say exactly why, but it may be in part because of Martin Luther (about whom I know little—and I hereby offer my apologies to all the Martins out there who don’t exemplify those qualities.)
One day a word flew into my head while I was wondering what to call him: Sanger. I didn’t know what it meant, but it reminded me of ‘sanguine’—not a good choice, as this Martin is anything but bloody or passionate. But the intuition was so strong that I did a search to see if I could come up with something similar. I discovered that ‘Sanger’ is a German word meaning ‘pincer’ or ‘pliers.’ The immediate image I had was that of a pair of pliers working on the inside of someone’s brain with the skull cut open—a perfect visual reference for what psychiatrists do! I knew I had to use it, even if the casual reader will never know what it means.
It still seems a bit of a miracle to be here, in Puerto Vallarta, having left behind minus-12 degree temperatures and banks of snow. What’s even more miraculous is the little eagle aerie I’ve lucked into as a writing space. For once the gods smiled instead of frowned. My living space for the month is an open-concept hillside house north of the Rio Cuale, about four minutes away from Elizabeth Taylor’s former home, with open, breezy portals above, and a view of the bay below. Best of all, however, is the lookout, an 8x8 room at the top of a third floor tower, accessed via a couple of ladders and with a view of the entire town. It’s here I spend my days working on the second draft of Lake on the Mountain. It’s a bit odd to think I’m creating a tome about the dour workings of the Presbyterian Canadian mind while ensconced in lush tropical Mexico.
Lately I've been seeing just how much method there is to my madness. I've never sat down to sort out my writing process but, as I'm an organization freak, it stands to reason that my writing is systematic. I do know I work very ad hoc, so whatever it takes on any given day is what I do, but as I've geared up to leave for Mexico I've become more aware of the hidden process behind it (and after seven books, it's a pretty solid process.) The first stage is usually a broad canvas approach of getting down whatever, but by this point -- second draft -- I've honed things down considerably. Lately I've been working on no more than one or two chapters a day, refining and casting off unwanted material, to arrive at a solid working second draft, something that will be presentable to my agent and a potential publisher (in this case Cormorant, as Marc Cote was largely responsible for the impulse to write this current book, when he asked if I'd thought of writing a serious thriller. At the time, I said no -- I was having too much fun writing satire with the Bradford Fairfax books -- but that quickly changed.) Now, at the end of my allotted chapter, I force myself to stop, even if it's going well, and take a walk (if it's not too cold!) With my mind still on the book, I end up writing and rewriting in my head while I'm walking. This forces me to think and rethink things, sometimes gaining direct input from whatever's happening around me. Because a good deal of the book takes place in my neighbourhood (Leslieville), I can incorporate visual details, snippets of conversations, etc., for that little touch of reality with the book fully in mind.
Well if that (yesterday's note) wasn't a case of muddled thinking, I don't what is! I must be carrying too many story notes around in my brain. Now that I think things over I realize I'd relocated my character to the other side of the water precisely because it made more sense for him to take the ferry from that direction. And thus do yesterday's tragedies become tomorrow's banana peels.
Aaargh!! A major plotline flaw, having to do with a ferry boat crossing. I need to coordinate a sighting of a missing person by the ferry boat captain with the later sighting of a second person. In an early draft, the misper originally lived on one side of the river, but I had to switch his location for technical reasons. It makes far more sense for him to live where he does now, except I've got him on the wrong side of the river! I'll have to think this one through very carefully.
Good news! I got the rights back to The P'Town Murders today. I also have an offer to reprint from a new publisher. I won't mention the name here till the contract is signed, but if all goes well it will be re-published in June, right before Pride and the award ceremonies for the Lambdas and the Arthur C Ellis Award. Wouldn't it be nice if...
Because the rewriting is slow, I don't have as much to dissect in the process, but I'm happy with the first half of the new book. The second half, which was much less polished, is bumpier than I'd thought. Nevertheless, the material is there. I just have to sort it and smooth it out a bit before I let anyone else have a look.
Today I started the second draft of Lake on the Mountain. I'm taking this one at a leisurely pace and don't expect to finish it too quickly. What I'm reading excites me, and I know much of it is good work, possibly the best I've done. Obviously I want it to be the best it can be, so I won't to rush it. I may end up doing much of the rewriting in Mexico next month. Marc Cote (the publisher at Cormorant Books who inspired me to write a serious thriller) is waiting to see the next draft. He asked me to let him see it while it's still in a formative state, before I put too much of a polish on it. Part of me is reluctant to do so, while another part is eager to get some input on the book at an early stage.
So this is what the real world looks like. Not writing is giving me time for other things. My dog is getting all the walks he needs and maybe more. He looks at me like I'm a little crazed whenever I pick up the leash. I've also started to gain weight from those afternoon trips to Demetre's for white chocolate mouse cake or walnut cake from the Korean Bakery at Manning and Bloor. On the other hand, I created an entire scene featuring a trip to the bakery. Even more telling, my mother has stopped sending me those little notes beginning, 'Hello, you may remember me...'
Still, I find it's as much work not writing as it is writing. Every day I have to resist going back to the new manuscript. As the ideas flow and the writing pours out, I scribble on napkins and envelopes and packaging material when I'm out. At home, I've filled a pad of paper with notes. I think it's nearly time to start the next draft.
I spent a couple of hours with John Scythes at Glad Day Books discussing the possibilities for having The P'Town Murders reprinted. He constantly has to turn down customers who come into the shop looking for the book only to be told it's not currently available. John is all for doing it myself, and he's right in saying I would make more money that way. I think the days when writers were penalized for self-publishing are quickly slipping into obscurity, though this is an issue of self-reprinting, which is an altogether different bird. What I stand to lose in sales by holding out for a publisher, however, I could make up for if that publisher takes on the entire series as long as the distribution is right for the book.
It's been some time since I made the decision to get out of the CanLit ghetto and write books that sell -- but not books I don't want associated with my name. I love the Bradford Fairfax series and have had more fun writing these than most of my other works so far. And with this series I made a conscious decision to write for the US market. For a writer this is not selling out, but a matter of survival. And really, who wants to write books no one will read? The evolution of the book industry over the past 30 years has been towards the Walmart type superstore that stocks up on bestsellers at a low price, though we know a bestseller mentality doesn't make for better books. Nor is it good for the smaller bookshops like Glad Day, who can't command the larger discounts that the bigger stores get. The ones that have survived till now have made it on reputation and sheer street smarts, I suspect, finding ways to get books in that maximize profit for their smaller retail floor space, without tossing out the quality books. The success of on-line distributors like Amazon will reverse the Think Big mentality of the larger chains, by offering literally any and everything that it's in print -- a remedy for the writers -- but once again the smaller bookstores will bear the brunt of the fight for territory as on-line bookstores offer even lower prices. Read globally, but buy locally.
OK, it's been three days since I finished the book and made a deliberate break from my keyboard and any serious writing attempts. And I am now officially bored.
The happy delirium of not writing for a few days has struck me. I'm free to wander about in the world as though I had no purpose other than to exist, and for once, this is exactly how I like it. It doesn't matter if I lose myself for an entire day shopping for somosas, flowers and books. And the world doesn't seem to miss me. Today I picked up Tamburlaine Must Die, the second book by acclaimed Glaswegian writer Louise Welsh who, for my money, is just about the best thing going right now. I was bowled over by her first novel, The Cutting Room, and pretty much equally impressed by her third, The Bullet Trick. It's time to add Tamburlaine to the list. One of a number of reasons why I love her writing is that she successfully combines dazzling literary prose with thriller-style plotting, which is what I'm attempting in Lake on the Mountain.
The momentum of writing takes over even as I take a breather after having finished Lake on the Mountain. Of course it's not as simple as just walking away from the keyboard. My brain refuses to give up the job. Snippets of writing float through my head at unexpected moments, commanding my attention and making me stop and scribble whatever comes to mind. It's as though once I've done with pushing it through, the other stuff starts to float through more freely and things I hadn't thought about start to emerge. This is the time when I'm allowed to overhear conversations between the characters that will never take place in the book. (They never speak to me directly -- I'm not even in their world.) Maybe it's their way of letting me get to know them better, I suppose, so that I could tell you the type of toothpaste they prefer (if they have a preference, unlike me) or even the brand of condom that works best for them. A friend of my asked recently if I was able to click in and out of 'writing mode' quickly and thoroughly. I said yes, but perhaps the answer is that I'm never truly out of it.
At last! Despite the come-and-go 'flu I've been battling the last two weeks, I finished the first draft of Lake on the Mountain. And, I'm happy to say, I'm thrilled with much of it. A first draft for me is simply a version of the book completed from beginning to end. The rough draft, which I'd finished some time ago, had a number of chapters sketched out in point form, waiting to be filled in. Some of the final chapters gave me quite a bit of trouble, which isn't unusual as that's where a great deal of the sweat goes into rounding things up in way that agrees with the novel's beginning. The second draft, which I won't start just yet, will be an assessment of what works and what needs cutting or reshaping.
Drafts for me are fairly major revisions of a book, and I usually create between 6 and 8 drafts of every book, plus many smaller revisions, called 'passes.' The final polish comes only when I'm fully satisfied with the final draft. This particular draft weighed in at just over 78,000 words, a trifle long, but if the writing is strong it won't feel like a slow book. I'm guessing that by the time I've finished it will be closer to 75,000 words in length. Needless to say there's still a lot of work ahead.
For the first time since I was a teenager I've been writing about Sudbury, where I grew up. Back then I wrote about leaving it. Since then I'd decided it was too uninteresting to write about. But what I realized is that over the years it's become a mythic place, made resonant for me by its atrocities, both visual and social. What makes Sudbury unique -- being a northern mining town -- is also what makes it fascinating. In some ways it was a great place to grow up, but a horrible place to get stuck in if you didn't want to be there. In the current book I've made it sound like a cross between Auschwitz and the moon. No one who's a fan of Sudbury will be pleased, despite the accuracy of what I've written.
Well, today I learned there is such a thing as 'too sick to write.' Or nearly, anyway. I woke feeling like a truck had run over me in my sleep, and barely progressed from that state all day long. I kept at it, though, because I also found that I felt better -- or at least stopped thinking about how I felt -- when I was attempting to write than just sitting back doing nothing. My own little version of mind over matter. And somehow, I made progress with the book.
As I near the end of the official first draft of Lake on the Mountain, I find myself paring down more and more. What I had thought would be three chapters turns out to be one, as I examine the material to determine what really needs to be there. This is the quest -- to bring the story down to essentials. Which doesn't mean jettisoning the writing, because the trick lies in the telling and the telling lies in the voice. In this case, 'voice' doesn't refer to a particular character, but the tone of narration. In Lake on the Mountain the voice is cynical, detached, edgy -- but not without hope.
Years ago, when I was writing my second novel, Timothy Findley volunteered to read a portion of it. His conclusion: the voice was not right. (He'd already praised my short story 'Jerry Falwell Goes To The Promised Land' as having the 'right' voice.) Of course I didn't accept his judgement and concluded the book wasn't for him. Hindsight proved him right. The book I wrote then now lies buried under a much stronger, more powerful book ... because I finally got the voice right. It was that book that taught me the necessity of having the right voice. Not just with my books, but with any book. For instance -- to choose an obvious example -- it makes a great deal of difference to have Holden Caulfield narrate the story of his decline rather than his mother or sister. So much so that we probably wouldn't want to read their version of The Catcher In The Rye -- that's how important voice can be.
One of the worst things about being in the home stretch on any piece of work is the temptation to rush it. I really have to slow myself down to make sure I'm hitting all the high notes and the low notes and everything in between. The benefit of being sick, however, is that I really don't have the strength to go out and do normal things. That trip to the drug store? It can wait. Need to stock up on food? Nah, I'll just eat this bag of chips. Which means I can start work relatively early, as I did this morning at 8:30, and still be at it well into the evening, because there are no obligations that matter, apart from getting the work done.
No wonder the days slip by and it starts to seem like I haven't seen the real world for days and sometimes weeks. I just realized I've been writing full time, more or less, for about 20 years, starting with A Cage of Bones in 1986, A Simple Song (unpublished) in 1990, The Honey Locust (TBP next year) starting around 1994, as well as three years of plays and three more of filmscripts, followed by the first three Bradford books (2005, 2006, 2007), and now Lake on the Mountain. I may have to re-title this blog 'A Writer's Half-Life.'
I'm really paying for that outing in the cold yesterday. I thought I might not be able to get out of bed, but after several rounds of medication and two warm baths, the old engine finally turned over. Suprisingly, I was able to accomplish something that had been eluding me for some time -- today I finished the wedding scene, probably the most crucial scene in the book. It takes place on a boat, and has a number of important consequences, including a death of one of the guests, all of which propel the second half of the story. Despite having to lie down every hour or two to do it, I still managed to get through what till now has been my biggest hurdle.
The best thing, and the worst thing, about being a writer working from home is that you can still work even when you're sick. Especially when you're so enthused about what you're working on that you just can't put it aside. I've been battling a horrible 'flu since just before New Year's. Today it hit pretty hard, though I still managed to put in a good day's work, the only interruption being a trek to the chiropractor. That in itself was a bit of a disaster, as I ended up walking twenty minutes in very cold (-13) weather, and arriving at the office in a full sweat. No doubt I'll pay for it tomorrow, but today I'm still working.
One of my New Year’s traditions is to catch a film every January 1st. Last night, Shane and I saw Atonement, a choice made largely due to the presence of James McAvoy, star of The Last King of Scotland. I was so impressed with his performance in that film that I wanted to see what he’d do in this adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel.
I’m not a McEwan fan, though I’ve enjoyed him occasionally. Some years ago, after seeing the film version of The Comfort of Strangers, I dubbed him a writer of horror stories for yuppies. Since then I’ve had a fairly ambivalent (meaning ‘having conflicting views’ rather than ‘neither here nor there’) response to everything of his I’ve read. I admire some of his writing a lot and much not at all. Apart from the opening story in the collection ‘First Love, Last Rites,’ I’ve never enjoyed a work of his in its entirety.
To me, his writing feels academic, as though he’s writing a thesis—cold, calculating and occasionally brilliant, but seldom moving. It’s more than just that emotionally repressed Anglo nature. At some point, I always feel that characters and events are being manipulated to support a premise or frame an idea, and I stop believing in the story. Martin Amis has the same effect on me.
While I haven’t read the book, it seemed odd that the film’s beginning and ending are told from the POV of the younger sister, Briony, while the middle is about Briony’s older sister Cecilia and Cecilia’s lover, Robbie. The story of the couple—separated when Robbie is accused by Briony of a crime he didn’t commit—is powerful, but has an intrusive post-modern twist (Vanessa Redgrave, as the older Briony, returns half a century later to “explain” what happened) that’s both distancing and unconvincing.
I might also say that stories about heterosexual coupling often don’t appeal to me unless they’re exceptional (think Casablanca, Chinatown, Moulin Rouge, Old Yeller—ok, the latter isn’t really about coupling), while I find myself far more tolerant of gay stories. For one thing, I’m inclined to share their perspective on life and, for another, there are fewer gay stories, so I’m less easily bored by them.
Having said that, however, I found the relationship between Cecilia and Robbie quite engrossing, but I suspect I was responding to what most people who claim to love this film are responding to: Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, two of the world’s most beautiful people, in close-up. It’s intoxicating.
The added value of having McAvoy is in seeing what appears to be the emergence of a colossal talent. There are few movie stars today who have real acting chops: Sean Penn, Heath Ledger, Leonardo DiCaprio, Philip Seymour Hoffman—and only a few from the past: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave. OK, I’m picky… But so few stars have what it takes to deliver a subtle, stunning performance film after film. Let’s add McAvoy to the list.
I guess it's inevitable that I'd spend part of New Year's Day looking back over the previous year's accomplishments. It was a year that saw the publication of my second book, The P'Town Murders, ten years after the first. And I'm glad to say I am very happy with that book. The promotional tour was fun, though with the publisher selling and the book not being given a second printing, it all seemed to come to an abrupt end. Now there is hope for a new publisher, however, and I'm looking forward to seeing it reprinted.
In fact, over the past year-and-a-half I seem to have made quite a bit of headway, having polished and sold a third book, The Honey Locust, due to be published in spring 2009. I also finished Death In Key West, the second in the Bradford Fairdfax series, and wrote a first draft of the third Bradford book, Vanished In Vallarta. I now sit on the verge of finishing another book, Lake on the Mountain. All because I've had the luxury of time, not having held a real job for more than a year. The coffers are looking slim and Mother Hubbard is clucking in admonishment, but look what I've done, Ma!