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.