A fun evening at BENT, with four other writers: Tamai Kobayashi, Farzana Doctor, S Bear Bergman and John Miller. Kudos to moderator Andrew Vail, who presided over the festivities with flair and finesse, and many thanks to the lively audience at this well-attended event at the Gladstone Hotel on Queen W. We may not have solved the publishing dilemmas of queer authors, but we had a hell of a good time discussing them.
Tonight marked the one year anniversary of Proust & Company, the musical and literary salon held above Gladday Bookshop. Thanks to our wonderful readers, RM Vaughan (Troubled), Peter Dube (Hovering World) and Steven Bereznai (Queeroes), as well as the Urban Flute Project, who provided some terrific musical ambience. Thanks also to John Scythes and Gladday, co-host Josh Bentley-Swan, Shane McConnell (who did most of the work, as usual) and everyone who dropped by.
It's always nice when you feel your writing is appreciated. And then there are those extremely rare reviews that send you over the moon. This is one: http://www.stageandpage.com/the%20honey%20locust.htm#locust
Just back from a surprise birthday trip to Paris. (Free ticket—don’t hate me!)
Best meal: soup a l’oignon, steak with Roquefort sauce, patates frites and mousse au chocolat at the economical Côte d’Azur in Montmartre.
Best moment: twilight on the roof of the Arc de Triomphe. (Frommer’s is right—it’s the best view of the city, bar none.)
Most memorable moment: getting stuck in the World Cup Soccer craziness when France beat Ireland and missing the last subway across town. (And we think Toronto closes early. Thank goodness for all-night busses!)
Most sentimental moment: accidentally coming across the Carnavalet Museum in Le Marais, where Marcel Proust’s bedroom has been recreated with his actual furniture.
It's been a rockin' kinda week, starting with a very fun launch of The Honey Locust at Nicholas Hoare Books (thanks, guys!), and then an evening as a featured writer at the prestigious Writers' Trust Awards dinner at the Four Seasons. These events were followed by a dream performance of songs I composed for soprano Lilac Cana at the funky Ars Audet fundraiser for ACT--on my birthday, no less! The stars are shining nicely these days.
A superb launch for my new novel, The Honey Locust (Cormorant), at Nicholas Hoare Books last night. Thanks to everybody who came out! I look forward to seeing you all again before too long.
As part of the United Readers of Cawthra (UROC) series, I was treated to a special performance of the opening scene from my award-winning play, Zebra, about the murder of librarian Kenn Zeller in Toronto's High Park in 1985. The Grade 12 students did a great job with the scene, which takes place in Kenn's grade school. It was a treat to see it enacted again. I also read from The Honey Locust, Death In Key West and a very short scene from my first novel, A Cage of Bones. I was amazed by what an appreciative and generous audience the students were.
Back from the cape, where it was cold, windy and beautiful. Provincetown is a great place to be at any time of year. Bradford Fairfax and I had a good time at some old hangouts, like having a latte at Joe's Coffee, watching the sunset at Race Point and walking over the breakwater. (I finally timed it: it takes half an hour to cross at a steady pace.)
Greetings from Asbury Park! Well, sort of. Bradford Fairfax and I took a little trip to New Jersey on our way to Provincetown. We spent the afternoon taking photographs in Asbury Park, now an up-and-coming hot spot on the Jersey coast, though until quite recently it was known best for being a derelict resort town as well as the title of a Bruce Spingsteen album. Can't wait to hit the Cape tomorrow.
Recently, a friend asked if I referred to myself as a gay writer or just a writer. Given the recent kaffufle at the Lambda Organization, I thought it highly topical. Here's what I wrote back:
I do not refer to myself as a gay writer, though I don't mind if other people do. Shakespeare has been called a gay writer by many people (including me, and precisely because of that "pride by association" you refer to), so of course I'm fine with it, but the public perception generally is that contemporary gay writers write largely about gay people and gay issues, which is somewhat true in my case, but, more importantly, that we write only for a gay readership. It's the latter category I want to avoid being placed in, because I feel I write for everyone.
On a basic level, being called a gay writer can limit an author's readership, and I don't want to be limited in that way because I think I have things to say to many different people. For the very same reason, it puts us at an economic disadvantage, as well as placing us in a category of writer that often gets overlooked by award adjudicators. I don't think there's ever been a gay or lesbian novel up for a Governor General's Award, for instance. In Britain, in 2004, Alan Hollinghurst won the Booker Prize for his "gay-themed" novel, The Line of Beauty. I believe that was a first in almost forty years of prize-giving. Times are changing, yes, but some of us are starving in the meantime, when we aren't being overlooked.
Right now, in the US, a huge controversy is raging in the ranks of the Lambda Award people on whether or not to allow the entry of "gay-themed" books by non LGBT authors. Whoever wins an award gets a huge boost to his or her career, so the question is whether or not the Lambda Foundation wants to further the careers of non-LGBT authors who, presumably, make money on their non-LGBT books and can be eligible for non-LGBT awards. A very valid question. But what do you do about the recent phenomenon (and it is a big phenomenon) of straight women who write male/male romances? They spend their time writing books intended for a gay readership (authors like E. Annie Proulx, who write an occasional gay-themed work like Brokeback Mountain, are less common.) Do we turn our backs on these non-LGBT writers who happen to contribute a lot to the gay community, but also happen to stand outside it, biologically-speaking? It's another valid, and very tricky question.
On the one hand, the foundation was established by gays/lesbians with the intent of furthering gay/lesbian culture. (Interestingly, a group of lesbians broke off from this group to found their own awards, feeling they were being overlooked by the men.) But on the other hand, you could just as easily ask what happens to a lesbian author who wins an award and then has a sex change and becomes a straight-identified man? Will they take back her/his award?
As for bookstores, I would like my books to be in the gay and the regular sections, simply to increase my chance of having them considered by a potential customer. As ridiculous as it sounds, there are still people who would never be seen browsing an LGBT section in Chapters, or anywhere else for that matter. We're still fighting all that ignorance and prejudice. (The bookstore categories, presumably, are there to guide customers to the kind of books they're looking for, not to marginalize any particular "type" of writer, but it happens anyway. It's human nature in one of its lowest forms--nothing new.) For that reason in particular, however, I would prefer my books be read for what they are and classified afterwards.
Miles Davis said, "I'll play it first and say what it is later." I couldn't agree more.
Word On The Street proved as popular this year as ever, only this time it was my turn to read. I always enjoy introducing a new book to an audience, because it gives me a chance to get a feel for how people will react to it.
Today's festival was my second reading from The Honey Locust, after last week's session at Words Alive in Sharon Ontario. It was also my last public reading this month.
As enjoyable as the month has been, with a new book out, a new documentary screened, and a public performance of three new songs at the St Lawrence Centre, I'm exhausted and looking forward to doing very little in the week ahead.
Bake a cake and invite me over, someone.
A very busy weekend! It began with the publication of my new novel, The Honey Locust (Cormorant Books), of which I am very proud. It's a beautiful looking book and I think it's my best writing yet.
Then on Saturday, two premieres: my documentary on the life, career and charity work of singer Lilac Cana was followed by a performance of three songs I composed for Lilac. Best yet, I got to accompany her on piano on-stage at the St Lawrence Centre for the Arts. A magical evening.
On Sunday, I read from The Honey Locust for the first time, at Words Alive, a very special literary festival held on the grounds of the Sharon Temple, in Sharon ON.
My new book, The Honey Locust, arrived today. It's my fourth book, but this one feels really special, perhaps because it's taken so long to be published. I have never held a newborn baby in my hands and thought, "This is mine; I created this," while marveling at the infinite possibilities that lie ahead for it. And while I don't mean to undervalue the gift of human life (or my other books), I feel something very much like that, as I hold this book and caress it and marvel over its beauty.
Another fun night at the Proust and Company salon, featuring the new must-have anthology from editor Caro Soles and MLR Press. It was also Paul Bellini's birthday -- the Big "0". Happy birthday, Paul! And thanks to everyone who came to listen and buy a book.
Here's my take on the collection:
Don Juan & Men edited by Caro Soles (MLR Press 2009)
"What if Don Juan were gay?" is the question posited by this unique collection. Unlike his real-life counterpart, Giacomo Casanova, Don Juan is a fictional character, Byron's epic poem Don Juan and Mozart's opera Don Giovanni (libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte) being among the most famous versions of the legend. Now editor Caro Soles presents us with a convincing collection of short fiction showing the Don's other face as gay seducer. Characterized by fine craftsmanship, as much a nod to editor Soles' qualities as a curator as to the talented writers she's selected, this collection gives a wonderfully varied look at what a gay Don Juan might be like: greedy and generous, sadistic and loving, aggressive and gentle, and most of all, irresistible.
A rather remarkable morning at the recording studio today. I spent two hours with singer Lilac Cana and producer Michael Freedman going over the four songs I'd written for Lilac's new CD, Blossom. Of the four, we loved three and decided to scrap one, eventually re-recording the first song we recorded back in spring. There was nothing wrong with the take, but in the intervening months, Lilac and I had found a new tone and tempo for the song, and it made the old take sound lacklustre. I'm quite excited about the collection, which features a young violinist on the third song, Violets, with words by english poet John Moultrie.
Today was one of those rare transformative days. I recently finished final edits on The Honey Locust, my novel about the Bosnian war, due out next month from Cormorant. I played hookey and spent three hours on my bike listening to my iPod and riding around the east end. At one point, I stopped in a ravine to listen to the Bach cantata Ich Habe Genug ("I Have Enough"), with one of my favourite tenors, Ian Bostridge. I was utterly transported, to the point where I felt as though I was in 18th century Leipzig in the middle of an Alpine forest (my fantasies are nothing, if not elaborate.) It took me back to a similar moment that brought forth this particular book, many years ago. I was sitting on my back porch under a neighbour’s Honey locust and experienced a feeling of utter peace that was entirely foreign to my nature at the time. It was to become the basis for the last scene of the book even before I knew what the story was about, other than its underlying theme of personal redemption. Those two moments—fifteen years apart—have book-ended things for me, for it’s only now that the book has been fully realized in my eyes. The moment itself was very Goethe-Schiller-18th-century Romanticism, but I’d be a liar if I denied that my soul is steeped in that tradition, even if my current style is outwardly anti-romantic in nature.
Wow--a whole month since my last entry. And a busy one. Since then, I've learned that Death In Key West is the number one seller at Glad Day Books, our local beloved bookshop. It was also among the top six sellers at Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans in May.
Lately, however, I've been under the gun to put the final touches on The Honey Locust, my literary novel about a Canadian journalist who experiences the Bosnian War. It's now in to the proofreader. I'll have a final go at it next week, and then it's out into the wide world with it, where I hope it finds a good home. Reality can be harsh.
This month sees me engrossed in three quite different projects. The first is the rough draft of a YA novel, "Javier and the Temple of the Jaguar," a brand new genre for me. It was inspired by my trip to Chiapas and the Mayan ruins at Palenque in February. The second is the continuation of the composing and recording project of my song cycle for soprano Lilac Cana, while the third is the video for Lilac's 40th birthday celebrations at St Lawrence Centre for the Arts this September. Busy times!
It's been a busy time. Following last week's very successful launch of Death In Key West, book two of the Bradford Fairfax mystery series, I was invited to read at the Proud Voices stage as part of Toronto's Pride Week Celebrations. It's something I've been hoping would happen for years.
I had perfect weather for my reading on Saturday, but the following day threatened annihilation by thunderstorms that miraculously passed by until the parade and most of the celebrations were over.
And as if that weren't enough excitement, today I finished my rough draft for book four of the series, Bon Ton Roulez, Cajun for Let the Good Times Roll. (I'll let you guess what southern city it's set in.)
It was an amazing evening on Tuesday, June 23, at the Moose Factory. Thanks for all your support and well wishes.
Glad Day Books did some booming business to get the book launched in style and with impressive numbers.
As well, the Writers' Trust raised a small fortune for the Dayne Ogilvie Memorial Award.
Thanks to everyone for your generosity!
So far, the month has held a cornucopia of riches, including a very successful fourth evening in the Proust & Company series, which featured authors Storm Grant, John Miller and me. This was followed a few days ago with a private meeting with one of Canada's great mystery writers, Gail Bowen, Writer In Residence at the Toronto Reference Library. Gail had seen a preview selection from Lake On The Mountain, my "serious" mystery about a gay missing persons investigator and father. Not ony did she give me some terrific insights into parenting, she was also downright fun to sit and yack with and share writing trade gossip--a constructive and memorable morning.
This morning, I was thrilled to be in the studio with my friend, the dynamite soprano Lilac Cana, for a recording session of three songs of mine. Two of the songs were new works from a song cycle I'm writing for Lilac, with lyrics by other writers, including Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg and Shakespeare.
Another fun evening for Proust and Company last night. Josh Bentley-Swan hosted the event, taking over for me. Fave jazz duo Omel Masalunga and Jeri Aniceto put on another great set with an expanded repertoire, including classics like "Big Spender" and "More (Theme from Mondo Cane)". Newbie author Storm Grant gave a compelling first reading from "Gym Dandy", her "frothy gay romance" set in Toronto's gaybourhood, while Toronto favourite John Miller read from his expert, award-winning "A Sharp Intake of Breath", and I followed with the opening chapter of "Death In Key West."
Thanks to all who attended. Your support makes it all worthwhile. Please join us Sept 12, 8-10 p.m., for the launch of the Caro Soles-edited, "Don Juan and Men", a scintillating collection of fiction reworking the Don Juan legend, featuring Paul Bellini, Michael Rowe, and others.
Having a new anthology show up in my mailbox is a reminder I have one less publication ahead of me that my work will appear in. Sad, but it's how I think. On the bright side, I'm always thrilled when the anthologies are smart looking, like the two volumes I was accepted in recently. Boy Crazy, edited by prolific Canadian Richard Labonté, is the first. And it's undoubtedly smart looking. I'm happy to be included with established masters like Michael Rowe and James Magruder, as well as talented newcomers like Rob Wolfsham and Natty Soltesz. The book's subtitle, "Coming Out Erotica," might seem a bit misleading. For the most part, these stories aren't about sex, but about self-discovery that comes through sexual awakening. Most are just downright good writing, first and last. All are filled with the unabashed ardour and joy of first time sexual intimacy. Dale Chase's Army Brat has a charming insouciance, while FA Pollard's Game Boyz wins big for hottest and most natural sex scene, and Wolfsham's nerd-boy voice in The Viking is irresistible. Others, like Rowe's August, Magruder's Treasure Map, Soltesz's Paperboys and Thomas Fuch's Larry and His Father, will take you places you won't expect to go and won't forget either—the trick of accomplished writing.
And then there were none. The 2009 Saints and Sinners Festival, one of the best little book festivals in the world, is now officially over. I participated in a panel discussion on mystery writing on Saturday, read from Death In Key West on Sunday, then attended the knighting of Michael Thomas Ford as he was inducted into the S&S Hall of Fame. (After publishing 55 books, Mike received a "mid-career" award. There's optimism for you.)
The closing ceremonies were wet inside and out. The alcohol was freely flowing and I've never seen New Orleans so cool and rainy. It felt as if I'd never left Toronto. It was great to catch up with old friends like Jeff Mann, Jill Braden (aka Kathleen Bradeen), Lynn Krauss and Mike Ford, as well as new friends like fellow panelist Gary Zebrun.
As usual, I picked up some great story ideas. Two days ago I woke in the early morning hours to a noxious smell of burning chemicals and later learned a pier was on fire under suspicious circumstances in Bywater (a nearby neighbourhood to the Faubourg Marigny, where I always stay at the wonderful and welcoming Lions Inn on Chartres, if you want a solid gold recommendation for a New Orleans guesthouse.) The burning of the pier will probably become the opening scene of Bradford's fourth adventure, which takes place in NOLA. I don't have a title for it yet, but I'm toying with calling it Bon Ton Roulay, Cajun for "Let the good times roll."
Two days left before I head home.
Saints and Sinners is now offically in full swing. Today I took in four (4!) masterclasses with some experts in the field: Writers' Guild lawyer Michael Gross on writers' contracts, Michael Thomas Ford on the impossibility of being a full-time writer (and how he has being doing the impossible for 20 years), New York Times writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis with some highly personal insights on writing creative non-fiction, and Greg Herren on exploring sexuality in a fictional context. All entertaining, all rewarding sessions. And that's just day one.
Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, New Orleans
Although the event hasn't started yet, I'm dipping into New Orleans culture and hospitality. A bike ride (16 miles!) around the city reveals how much of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina still remains, but how different the city looks from two years ago when I was last here. Then, it was a disaster area, and the expressions on people's faces said they were running out of hope their city might ever recover. Today, nearly four years after Katrina, it's looking like a vibrant community again.
This morning, Shane and I went out for a celebratory beignet (if you don't know what that is, think the best deep fried doughnuts in the world, covered in icing sugar and served smokin'), courtesy of BC writer Geneva St James, aka Lynn Krauss, whose wonderful "Made For You" was recently nominated as one of the top five comic lesbian novels of 2008.
On the way to meet Lynn I saw Montreal writer Peter Dube sitting in a cafe and, later, at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel where the festival takes place, I spotted multi-award winning author Ellen Hart stepping out of a cab.
I've got a panel coming up Saturday and on Sunday I'll be reading from the new Bradford Fairfax adventure, "Death In Key West", (which I haven't seen in print yet!) In between, I'm going to try to hear as many writers and attend as many Master Classes as I can.
Say hello if you're here!
Blood Hunt by Ian Rankin writing as Jack Harvey (Orion Books 1994)
You know that a book written by a one-time punk musician is going to have street cred, though what else it may contain is anybody’s guess. In this case, intelligence, suspense, and some fun political theorizing. Scotsman Reeve is a former SAS officer who trains weekend warriors in the art of tracking and overpowering imaginary enemies. He doesn’t know how handy those talents will come in until he receives a call saying his journalist brother has been found dead in San Diego. The web Reeve unravels to find his brother’s murderers is long and sordid, and would do any conspiracy theorist proud. For the most part, it’s amusing to watch Reeve at work in this tale of physical and intellectual warfare. Rankin has a big reputation among the thriller set, and it’s deserved, though the downside is that the writing doesn’t shine. Words have no importance here—one can just as easily be substituted for another with no detriment to the book. The story’s the thing, and it moves and moves, though if it stopped moving, it would very likely collapse. There’s a lot of sound and fury signifying little, apart from some brief philosophising on the nature of power.
An acquaintance and I once discussed our respective literary tastes. His litmus test was The English Patient. He wouldn’t credit the taste of anyone who admired that book. Ironically, it was also my test. I couldn’t credit the taste of anyone who didn’t understand what makes it great. It’s not snobbishness; it’s about values. In TEP, words are magic. Or rather, how they’re used is the magic, since few words have currency on their own these days. If you have a tin ear for words, the writing won’t entice you. “What about The Great Gatsby?” he asked, not knowing he’d touched on my ne plus ultra. “It’s pretty boring,” he said. To him it was simply a story about a love triangle. Or rather, two love triangles that bisect, with a narrator standing outside each squaring the hypotenuse. Seen in that way it would be pretty boring, but if you have an ear for words, it’s magic. While Rankin’s story rocks, his ear for words is the equivalent of punk music. It’s about raw, primary power, not subtlety and certainly not magic.
The Violet Quill Reader, Edited by David Bergman (St. Martin's Press 1994)
The 20th Century was dotted with literary groups (Bloomsbury, Stein's Paris Circle, the Harlem Renaissance, etc.) Many of these influenced the course of literary history; all were dominated by gays and lesbians. (Yes, all--check the rosters, if you don't believe me.) The Violet Quill met only eight times between 1980-81, yet it was the first official group created with the express aim of writing to and for a gay readership. The seven men who comprised the VQ--Felice Picano, Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, George Whitmore, Christopher Cox, Robert Ferro and Michael Grumley--all met in a personal capacity before throwing in their lot as a literary "movement."
Published 13 years after the official "disbanding" of the group, The Violet Quill Reader contains work by all seven writers, including a formerly unpublished story by Cox, who produced little and died young (as did Grumley, Ferro and Whitmore), as well as letters and diary entries detailing the group's short-lived formal activities. By all accounts, the group shared a basic political outlook (gay liberation theology), but not an aesthetic one. Their work does not constitute a school of any sort, apart from that of being written by and for gays in what is now loosely called "the post-Stonewall era."
Bergman has carefully shaped the book to reveal the evolution of the writers before, during and after the group (only Holleran, whose famed Dancer From The Dance was among the first best-selling pieces of Gaylit, seems to have come to the group with his style fully-formed), as well as to frame their work in an historic context. It opens with White’s wonderful firsthand account of the Stonewall Riots, and some early letters of Holleran and Ferro not long after the two met at a Writers' Workshop in 1965. It ends with Holleran’s tribute to Ferro, following his death to aids in 1989.
While the work no longer seems revolutionary (Whitmore's The Confessions of Danny Slocum, for instance, reads like very slow literary foreplay, and White’s Nocturnes for the King of Naples is nothing more than self-indulgent "poetic" gobbledegook), in its day much of it was revelatory. Under the group's influence, individual members began producing far more notable work and were considered among the most successful gay authors of their generation. And while much of it covers familiar territory (coming out, facing discrimination, living with aids), a good deal of it remains powerful: the excerpt from Whitmore's Nebraska is gripping, as is the one from Ferro's last work, From Life Drawing. There are some memorable short pieces as well, like White’s intriguing An Oracle, and the droll Whitmore short story, Getting Rid of Robert, a "biographical" work that threatened to tear the VQ apart.
While the amount and the quality of work produced by individual members differs greatly, the group's collective influence on GayLit has been huge, and its value perhaps only now beginning to be recognized. The remaining members, White, Holleran and Picano, are to be honoured by the Lambda Literary Foundation with the 2009 Pioneer Award next month. And though with hindsight the VQ may seem to have been a movement whose time had come, we owe much to those who marched before it became entirely fashionable to do so.
And suddenly it's summer! Today it reached 21 degrees--nice T-shirt weather for most Canucks, though I won't shed my winter gear till it hits 23.
Two weeks ago I sat down to start work on the third draft of my non-gay, non-literary mystery, The Sulphur Springs Cure, written for, yes, money. (It's a Miss Marple-style cosy about an 82-year-old woman who returns to the scene of a childhood murder, and which I intend to publish under the name Isadora Funk.) I quickly ploughed through the first hundred pages. Since then, one thing after another has conspired to keep me from getting back to it, including the final proofs of Death In Key West, which is unofficially due out May 8. Every day it seems there's something new needing to be done.
Today I finally booked for the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans next month. As gay literary festivals go, it's one of the most enjoyable and rewarding around. I'm especially looking forward to seeing pals like Greg Herren and Paul Willis, as well as Lynn Krause (aka author Geneva St James…shhh!), Jeff Mann, Michael Thomas Ford, Aaron Hamburger, and a whole lot of others…not to mention the gumbo and the beignets!
Last night's Proust and Company saw one of the most rousing evenings we've had at the event so far, and this was as much due to our highly appreciative audience as to some terrific readers and performers. Singer/guitarist Ezequial Ledesma started us off with a superb set of classic Latin songs, featuring some evocative backup vocals by Geri Anecito and P-and-C perennial, Omel Masalunga. Then poet, biographer and theatre critic Keith Garebian read from his recent work, Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems, a haunting elegy to the late filmmaker whose life and work have inspired some of Keith's most passionate poetry. He was followed by Toronto favourite and new mom, Elizabeth Ruth, whose famous Clit Lit reading series ran for nearly five years and showcased more than 400 writers. Elizabeth read from Smoke, her highly acclaimed second novel about a Southern Ontario tobacco country boy with a facial disfigurement, selected as the 2007 One Book, One Community series. Finishing the evening with a bang, the only writer I know who achieves vertical lift-off the moment she starts to read, west coaster Karen X Tulchinsky put in a surprise appearance after a cancellation by RM Vaughan. Although Rich was missed, we were thrilled to have Karen step in to take his slot, reading from her first novel, Love Ruins Everything. Truly a grand evening, and thanks to everyone (John, Josh, Ryan...) involved.
A friend recently wrote to say she was depressed and angry after her debut novel failed to make the shortlist of nominees for this year's Lambda Awards. Here is my response:
Now you're sounding like a real writer.
I felt exactly the same after my book got bumped from the shortlist of another prestigious award. I felt worse when I saw the books that made it to the list, and far worse when I read the book that won. And then it got really bad when a colleague told me one of the jurors had hated my book and given it a terrible review.
The truth is, your novel was funny and touching and well written, but that's no guarantee it will be a prize winner. The Great Gatsby didn't win any prizes and received mostly bad to mediocre reviews when it was published. Then Fitzgerald had a shitty life and died at 44 thinking himself a failure. Gatsby eventually went on to become a major bestseller and one of the most beloved novels of all time. So who's laughing now? (I don't know either, but it ain't Fitzgerald. That much I can tell you.)
All of which is to say, getting your book published is a little like winning the lottery. It doesn't happen to everyone. And even if the world doesn't care, it should be a big deal to you. Enjoy the fact that people bought your book, and were touched or cheered by it, or maybe were just impressed by the fact that YOU ARE A PUBLISHED AUTHOR. You now belong to a small but select group, and that in itself is an achievement.
In future, when you win your award for whichever book you write that manages to attract the tastemakers of whatever year it gets published in, do yourself a favour. Remind yourself that no matter how good or popular it is, it is probably not the best thing you will ever write. And then get going on the next one. It's all in the work.
Most so-called overnight successes take years to get to the top, and most of the real instant successes are forgotten tomorrow anyway. Just write the best you can and always-always-be thankful for your talent. You won't take the prizes or the money to the grave with you, but you can live knowing you accomplished something remarkable.
That may not cheer you up, but it should give you a little perspective on what kind of territory we work in. It's not always nice or kind or fair (in fact, usually it's not.) But we can hold our heads up knowing that we're the sort of people who live with integrity and respect for our talent. And that's something.
Now gwan -- get writing.
From Cancún to San Cristóbal de las Casas
(photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/29261658@N03/ )
It can be difficult to come home after a good trip, but this time I found it particularly hard. To finalize portions of a book I have coming out this fall (The Honey Locust, Cormorant Books), I travelled to Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. It’s such a far-out place, I almost feel I’m not part of this world any more.
Chiapas is not highly travelled by tourists and almost everything is inexpensive. Part of the reason is that this is where the Zapatista Liberation Army (EZLN) staged its anti-globalization protests in 1994. As a result, much of the state is now under armed rule, a heavy-handed monitoring (and occasional torturing and murder) of the goings-on of the Indigenous people, who lead impoverished lives, being both poorly educated and malnourished. Perhaps not surprisingly, the US financially supports the Mexican government’s suppression of these people to help maintain NAFTA’s stability. I’m not aware if Canada does the same directly, but we are still NAFTA-ites.
To get to Chiapas, we travelled by car from Cancún, west through Mérida and down past Campeche, a coastal city with two walled fortresses. From there we continued to our final destination of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a beautiful city of light and colour ringed by mountains and reminiscent of Florence with few traces of tacky Tijuana-style Mexico. It’s cool there—the average nighttime temperature was about 15 degrees. Seeing people in ski jackets and toques, even in the daytime, was not unusual.
Our total driving time was 17 hours each way, so we got to see a lot of the country, including some spectacular mountain vistas. Needless to say, the drive is not for the timid unseasoned tourist (most of it is unlighted and often unmarked) or for those with plain old bad karma.
Chiapas is home to Palenque, one of the granddaddies of Mayan ruins, set in the jungle at the foot of the Chiapas highlands. You can explore the ruins in relative peace—they’re not over-crowded and the tourists who go tend to be respectful. Another set of nearby ruins is the often-overlooked Toniná, once a political rival to Palenque, situated just outside of Ocosingo. Though less complex, I found these ruins more impressive than Palenque because of the majestic views of the valley and surrounding mountains from the top of the pyramid (which you can no longer climb at highly visited sites like Chichén-Itzá.) While there, Shane and I were invited to participate in a spirit-raising ceremony sung/chanted in a Mayan tongue and addressed to the four directions: west for thoughts, east for emotions, north for characteristics and south for personality.
For me, the most memorable part of our journey came with a horseback ride to a small native settlement, San Juan Chamula, situated in the hills just outside San Cristóbal, which gave us our biggest insight into the life of the modern-day Maya. A very poor town, the superb and highly colourful crafts seemed to be the biggest source of income. Though the townsfolk were welcoming, we were warned by our guides not to take pictures of the natives, who believe photographs steal their souls, as well as of the church interior. To disregard these laws (they are actual state laws) can result in a fine or jail sentence. It was difficult, but I managed to restrain myself from snapping a few photos in secret.
The interior of the church at San Juan Chamula is like no church I’ve ever seen. Though it has the requisite portraits of saints, it’s very different from a traditional church. The pre-Christian Maya worshiped a tree they called the World Tree, which they dressed in human clothing on festival days. When the Spanish imposed Christianity on them, the Maya combined the World Tree with the cross, to maintain their own religion while satisfying the demands of the conquistadors. To this day, the crosses in and around San Juan Chamula are all strapped to pine trees.
When you enter, the first thing you notice is that the floor of the church is covered in pine needles and hundreds of burning candles. The air is filled with smoke and lit by the glow from the candles, which you must step around as you walk. There are no pews. People sit on the floor or huddle in prayer over the candles. If you look closely you might see a shaman cracking an egg over someone with an affliction (in order to draw off evil), or, for more serious causes, decapitating a chicken, which is kept in a cloth bag to keep it quiet until it’s needed for the sacrifice. You will also see people “purifying” bottles of Pepsi or spring water by revolving them over the candle flames—their version of holy water.
At another small mountain town, Zinacantán, is a series of hills (bumps, really, in the larger scheme of things in that area.) This is where the Maya believe the world started, and which they call the “navel of the world.” It’s now an artistic community as well as a home for numerous greenhouses that supply flowers to florists to the north.
I had brought glittery pencils to give out in some of the small villages on the way (the children will barricade the roads until you give them something or risk running them down.) The mothers in particular were grateful, and often asked for more for children at home, though far more than pencils are needed to help these people.
Despite their impoverished lives and primitive living conditions, the people are always impeccably dressed and well groomed. You can tell the differing tribes by their clothing. (You can even tell things like marital status—an unmarried Zinacantecan man, for instance, will leave the ribbons of his hat untied.) Though we occasionally felt resentment in some of the poorer areas, we never felt unsafe, except when we were stopped and questioned at the military checkpoints (which only happened if we travelled after dark, which we quickly learned not to do.)
Driving back to Cancún, we spent a few days on the Mayan Riviera, which was so over-crowded with tourists it seemed to have little to do with the real Mexico. We made a day trip to a cenote (a cavern filled with fresh water, part of a vast system of underground limestone caverns stretching throughout the Yucatán Peninsula.) Judging by the artefacts left behind, this one was determined to have been a place of (non-human) sacrifice serving various purposes, such as supplicating the gods for fertility or rain. We were even able to kayak in one of the underground caves before heading back home.
THE MEDIA HAVE LANDED
Something important I learned recently: if you put it out there, it will get heard. My on-line comments about an Albright-Knox Art Gallery event last September (one piano being dropped onto another piano with musical accompaniment) were recently cited in the Buffalo News “Arts Beat” blog. Naturally, I was impressed that my little entry was noticed, let alone publicized.
So here’s another…
In the summer of 2007, I watched a CBC news documentary on the “coming financial crash.” It seemed the media had got tired of promoting the coming “bird-flu pandemic” and the coming “Taliban take-over” and latched onto something juicier: money—a topic we can all relate to. Citing a stagnant market in the US, the item gloomily predicted an imminent and drastic drop in Canadian real estate prices.
Over the next few days, as I fretted about this impending loss to my property value, I began to notice a disproportionate number of properties coming onto the market. The media, it seemed, had sparked its own little “crash” as people tried desperately to unload their properties before they deflated.
Flash forward a year and a bit: everywhere you looked was news about the worldwide financial crisis. While it’s true that lost jobs and struggling economies are not simply a media fabrication, here’s the odd thing: I, who years ago vowed to dedicate myself to writing rather than hording money or working for corporations (my own little vow of poverty), suddenly found myself panicked over the crisis. I, who have not had a “real job” in years and have no investments or savings, suddenly found myself consumed by fear of “loss”. Why? Because the media told me I should.
What goes down will come back up. It’s the way of the world. Has an economy ever foundered so badly it never recovered so long as the country still existed? Has a market ever fallen so drastically that prices never got back to their level again? I doubt it.
As an artist, I see myself as a creator and a contributor rather than a consumer. (I have a sneaking suspicion God thinks the same thing, but maybe I’m wrong there.) I put things like happiness and personal relationships ahead of jobs and money (and therefore ahead of worries about getting ahead or starting wars to protect my property.)
Admittedly, my understanding of finances is very, very basic: if you have money, you can spend it. If you don’t, then you can’t. Simple me, but it’s true. And that’s how I live.
It seems to me many people put “having” ahead of “being” or “doing.” Where does this drive come from? I don’t know, but I’m sure the media have a lot of say in it if we’re at the point where we sell our properties and run because they say we should. A house that’s devalued is still a house. An acre of land that’s worth less on today’s market than yesterday’s still doesn’t get smaller. When do we start worrying about the real things we’re in danger of losing: the freedom to think, peace (of mind and country), tolerance and respect for others? These are the only things we should fear losing, if fear we must.
I’ve never been a Tom Cruise fan. Nor have I understood the popularity of director Bryan Singer. To me, psychological truth of character is of an extremely high regard, and Singer has always skirted this maxim with a wide-girth, putting spectacle before verisimilitude. So VALKYRIE was a highly unlikely choice for my New Year’s Day movie, but something compelled me to see it. Perhaps I’ve come to have a slightly higher regard for Cruise the person because of the personal bashings he’s taken recently, particularly his being fired by his studio after being a money-maker for decades. How do you fire a legend? Isn’t that what 20th Century Fox did to Marilyn? Money, apparently, is no respecter of anything. And Tom Cruise’s response was to say, “F**k You,” thereby gaining a modicum of my respect.
In fact, I was surprised I liked VALKYRIE as much as I did. It builds on the strength of the characters propelling the story. Never mind that it’s a Disney-Does-World War II take on certain events. Never mind that it often feels like Steven Spielberg crossed with Phantom of the Opera. The events, as overblown as they occasionally are, hold an important truth: not all Germans are evil. After decades of Hollywood telling us they are, that might be a revelation to some. In another instance, it might be that not all Palestinians are terrorists. Or not all whites are racist. Or not all Americans believe might makes right. Extrapolate as you wish. Look closely enough and you will find yourself on the list, wishing for someone to speak the truth about you, too.
Between the two poles of CASABLANCA and CABARET, it seemed for years that Germany’s reputation as the epitome of all-consuming evil might never change. With the recent film THE GOOD GERMAN and now VALKYRIE, it’s possible that our understanding of the events of the past might deepen, and something might be redeemed that was deserving of not just our respect, but our admiration as well.