Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Essays and Non Fiction’ Category

Junk1I recently read a volume of Wallace Stevens’ selected poems (The Emperor of Ice Cream and Other Poems; Dover Publications, 1999) and one piece in particular stands out in my mind.

“Anecdote of the Jar” appears about halfway through the book. Like all the best poetry, it manages to be, simultaneously, deceptively simple and yet enormous in its implications.

I can’t cite the poem in its entirety without paying a stipend to Stevens’ estate (and more power to ’em), but I can tell you that it succeeds, in three brief stanzas, at revealing humankind as the ultimate invasive species, spreading our cargo cult of garbage and useless detritus to the farthest reaches of our planet. Pepsi cans and cluster bombs dropping like manna from the heavens, a “north Atlantic gyre” of Walmart bags and accumulated human waste and debris, literally an island of filth to navigate around, map and study.

Understand, I know nothing of the genesis or conception of “Anecdote of the Jar”, this is purely my take on it, a highly subjective interpretation. The poem was likely written in the 1920’s or 30’s, long before the full scope of our crimes against the environment was apparent. Was Stevens’ prescient, somehow aware of what was coming? I’m not qualified to answer. I do know that quite often poets are like a canary in a coal mine, detecting dangerous elements and tendencies within our society the rest of us either don’t or (more likely) won’t acknowledge.

Junk3Just by its mere presence on a hillside in Tennessee, a jar, the simplest and most basic of objects, defeats that ancient landscape, forever marring it. Nature, in an instant, overtaken and violated, no longer pristine, untouched by human hands.

I think “fair use” permits me to quote two crucial lines:

The wilderness rose up to it/And sprawled around, no longer wild…

That’s it.

That’s what happens when you drop a fast food cup in the woods or toss your garbage from a moving vehicle. A single thoughtless act that spoils the scenery for the rest of us.

Remember the backpacker’s credo: Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.

And, even so, I beg you, make sure you walk on tiptoes…

Junk2

Read Full Post »

dishI’m glad you asked.

Well, since my last post, I’ve been a busy lad, working hard on the novel-in-progress, kicking PayPal’s ass and—

What’s that? I haven’t mentioned my on-going dispute with those lovely folks at PayPal/eBay, have I? Here’s the poop:

Three years ago I filed a formal complaint with the Privacy Commission of Canada. PayPal brusquely informed me that my on-line transactions had reached a certain (arbitrary) limit and I could no longer use their services until I allowed them to link to my bank account. Ahem. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am touchy about my security and privacy almost to the point of paranoia. There was no way I was going to give those corporate scum-suckers that kind of potential access to my personal banking information.

So I ratted PayPal out to the Privacy Commissioner. Insisted that I was being denied services and my rights as a private citizen were being violated.

After several years of investigations and submissions from both parties, the Privacy Commissioner has concluded that my complaint was “well-founded” and I have had my PayPal account fully restored. Not only that, Paypal has agreed to change its practices and fully implement the Privacy Commission’s recommendations regarding on-line transactions by November 30, 2014. These “corrective measures” will provide PayPal clients with more information and an “alternative solution”, other than the illegal and unwarranted collection of personal banking information.

My thanks to the folks at the Privacy Commission for pursuing such a lengthy and complex case and for holding PayPal’s feet to the fire until they were forced to acknowledge the legitimacy of my concerns.

Vindication! This is what happens when you refuse to be one of the dull-witted, simple-minded “sheeple”. As consumers and citizens of a free country we have rights and must make every effort to ensure our private data isn’t being collected/mined or our financial security rendered vulnerable by greedhead corporations and/or overly nosy, inquisitive government agencies.

So stay vigilant.

voiceWhat else? The novel…ah, yes, the novel. What can I tell you—very little really. It progresses, slowly but surely. Still anticipating an early 2015 release date…other than that, I have nothing to add. Cautiously optimistic but unwilling to go any further. How’s that for unhelpful?

When I’ve not been writing or editing, I’ve been watching a number of good movies, some of which I’ve reviewed over on my film blog. You did know I had a film site, right? Oh, for Heaven’s sake…well, you’ll find it here. I post infrequently (surprise, surprise) and refuse to have anything to do with silly popcorn movies, rom-coms or abominations by the likes of Michael Bay, JJ Abrams, Zack Snyder or (saving the loudest retch for last) James Cameron. I try to champion obscure or forgotten movies, doing my bit to enlighten contemporary cinema-goers, many of whom haven’t seen anything older than “Jaws”. Hands down, the best film I’ve seen so far in 2014 is a Czech film Sherron gave me for Christmas called “Marketa Lazarova”. Nothing else has come close. Set in the Medieval era, complications involving two warring clans…strong intimations of Bergman’s “Virgin Spring” and Kurasawa’s “Throne of Blood”. I intend to watch it again before I sit down and write my review. So much to take in—there is greatness in that film.

March 8th, Sherron and I attended a performance by the Saskatoon Symphony. Not a regular occurrence, I’m shame-faced to admit, but this time around the bill was too good to resist, featuring two of my favorite 20th Century composers, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams. After the intermission, three different choirs filed out and added their voices to Vaughan Williams’ “Sea Symphony” (the text derived from poems by Walt Whitman). Two solo vocalists, Monica Huisman and Peter McGillivray, were also highlighted and the evening concluded, as conductor Victor Sawa promised in his pre-concert chat, not with a huge flourish, but a gentle exhortation to sail on, ever onward, risking everything, abandoning safe anchorages and familiar stars:

“O my brave soul!
O farther farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail! …”

Unforgettable.

Lots of reading and music in the past few weeks—some titles that stand out, Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke (recommended by Penn Gillete on one of his “Penn Point” podcasts), Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Reza Aslan), as well as lots of poetry by the likes of Ted Kooser, Tom Hennen, Donald Hall and W.S. Merwin. In terms of tunes, I’ve been enjoying everything from a compilation of Simply Saucer songs I picked up in a thrift shop, to the Foo Fighters, Airbag, Radio Moscow, Bob Mould, Hayes Carll, Spiritualized…how am I doing?

And I want to take a moment to give a shout out to some individuals deserving of special mention, this month’s Roll Call of Honor:

First of all, a huge “Thank You” to Jason Brock for surprising the hell out of me with a couple of first edition Richard Matheson books. Gifts that arrived from out of the blue (an act of generosity I’ll remember a long time).

A big hug to my sister, Colleen, who recently retired from her longtime position with Viterra and, I hope, will now sit back and smell the roses for awhile—God knows, you deserve it, gal!

And, finally, a sad but fond farewell to a man who often represented the conscience of his nation, Tony Benn. One of my colleagues on LibraryThing posted the following quote, which sums the man up perfectly:

“Ask the powerful five questions:
What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you exercise it?
To whom are you accountable?
How can we get rid of you?”

Tony Benn (1925-2014)

satellite

Read Full Post »

SEX:coverTwenty-five years ago, I was a frustrated, angry writer.

I’d assembled a “Best of…” collection of tales and spent more than a year trying to find a publisher for it. All of the stories in that collection, titled Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination, had been previously published, some in pretty prestigious publications. A couple had aired on CBC Radio and I’d even received a generous grant from the Canada Council that helped pay for writing part of the book.

Didn’t matter.

See, the widely held view is that single author short story collections, regardless of the stature of the writer, just don’t sell. Sadly, I can tell you from personal experience that this is not an urban legend, for some reason contemporary readers shun the short story format. God knows why. Regardless, publishers tend to shy away from anthologies and such and my little offering was no exception.

“These stories are well written but as you know in today’s marketplace short story collections do not attract significant sales, etc….”

Heard that one a number of times.

But, curiously enough, the one sentiment repeated over and over again was this:  good writing, exciting plots and themes, but we don’t publish this type of thing.

What exactly was “this type of thing”?

My own bizarre concoction, a spicy stew of science fiction, horror, fantasy and mainstream, literary prose. A mash-up of every genre under the sun, defying categorization and safe niches. Which didn’t help matters. As far as Canadian presses were concerned anything with the slightest taint of genre was out—more than one Canuck editor gave me the impression that my stories weren’t, well, Canadian enough, didn’t conform to some weird, unwritten cultural checklist.

And as far as the Americans and Brits were concerned, I was a young, emerging writer, no following, and while my work showed originality and creative spark, it wasn’t worth risking a significant investment of time and resources.

So my book was effectively dead in the water.

But I couldn’t help thinking about a fellow I’d heard about out east, a guy who’d made it his mission in life to stick a pin in the Canadian publishing industry and, in general, make a nuisance of himself. Crad Kilodney’s best stunt, in my view, was submitting classic stories by Kafka and Hemingway and others to a national literary contest and then publicly embarrassing the judges and administrators for failing to recognize their literary merit.

Crad, understandably, found it difficult to place his work so he started publishing it himself and selling it as limited edition chapbooks on the streets of Toronto. My wife brought me back a copy of one he dubbed Bang Heads Here Suffering Bastards in the late 1980’s and I was immediately impressed by the author’s chutzpah and creative passion.

When my Sex collection was passed over by every publisher north of the Rio Grande, I recalled Crad and his fuck you, DIY mentality and thought to myself, shit, I can do that too.

It took me months to put it all together, find the right cover art, a printer and bookbinder, and the final price tag was (gulp) just over $3000 to print 500 copies. Money I did not have.

Fortunately, the entire print run sold out in about five months.

It was astonishing.

I think my old chum Mark Ziesing sold at least 70 copies through his small mail order company alone. The Regina bookstore I worked for at the time also moved a lot of copies and every time Sherron and I travelled somewhere, we always took a box with us, nabbing consignment sales in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto.

There were no returns.

The crowning moment was when our bookstore staff had dinner with Canadian literary icon Timothy Findley. Once he heard I had a new book out, Tiff generously asked to see it. After reading it, he sent me the most beautiful blurb possible. I was unable to use his kind words on that edition of Sex and promised him I would never employ them on any other title except the one for which they were intended. And so when I re-release Sex and Other Acts of the Imagination on its 25th anniversary early next year (2015), it will finally feature Tiff’s warm praise:

“This is a book of hot dreams and frozen nightmares. It floats on a plane few writers achieve, where the imagery is raw but the insights are tender. The people in these stories will stay with me for a long time to come.”

Thanks, Tiff. You dear, sweet man.

I’ve published a couple of short chapbooks and a collection of novellas (Righteous Blood) through other small presses but I have to say none of those experiences came close to the joy I felt writing, editing and publishing my own work. No middle men, no editorial interference, no bullshit. Controlling all the creative and aesthetic decisions, right down to the choice of font and margins.

I was hooked.

I released books through my imprint, Black Dog Press, in 1994, 1995, 1997…but that last title (another short story collection!), The Reality Machine, cost me close to $7000 and put a serious strain on our finances. It took us awhile to recover and then I embarked on a 3 1/2 year odyssey that became, eventually, my occult thriller So Dark the Night.

The completion of that novel coincided with the arrival of print-on-demand publishing, the biggest change to the book biz since Joe Gutenberg opened his first copy shop in Mainz.  Thanks to POD, publishing on a smaller scale has become much more affordable, plus I now have access to the international marketplace I’ve always coveted. Physical book or digital version, it’s up to my readers.

Since the 2010 publication of So Dark the Night, this press has released 5 more titles, each of them professionally designed and formatted, featuring eye-poppingly gorgeous cover art. You’ll find them in my bookstore and, I think you’ll agree, they look as good as any offering you’ll come across in your favorite book store. The writing isn’t bad either.

So that’s the story behind Black Dog Press, my eccentric little publishing venture. Twenty-five years  and eleven titles later (two more in the pipeline), and we’re still going strong.

I may never get rich but at least my work is out there, available to readers who seek prose that veers from the familiar and mocks the very notion of consensual reality. In this era of corporate publishing, a profit-mongering environment that encourages the proliferation of sub-literate, derivative fiction, independent presses like mine offer hope and inspiration to those of us who revere the printed word and refuse to kowtow to the mediocre and witless.

Thanks for your support over the years.

The best is yet to come.

Write on…

Read Full Post »

Vacuum FlowerFinally a warming trend around here. February in Saskatchewan has been a spine-stiffening experience; the one saving grace, there hasn’t been massive snowfalls to add insult to injury.

But according to the forecast, the temps will hover around -6 or -8 for most of the coming week. Balmy weather, compared to what we’ve been enduring up ’til now.  Frankly, I always feel better once the first of March rolls around—I can practically hear the crocuses stirring, even under four feet of packed snow.

A flurry of e-mails and communications after my last post and I guess I should have known better. Even by alluding to my novel-in-progress I was opening a can of worms. Now everybody wants to know details about the plot, genre, etc.

Now, you folks ought to know me better than that. I know some writers talk about their on-going projects, post excerpts, furnish plot details and teasers, seeking feedback from fans and readers.

How nice.

How not Cliff.

Kids, not even my wife knows more than the absolute bare bones of my current project. I keep my books, stories, poems under wraps until I’m ready to release them to the world. I want her to be surprised, amazed at my audacity (or, just as likely, dubious of my sanity). I seek no editorial input until a project is very near completion…then I’ll pass it on to Sherron and let her pick at it for errors, oversights or continuity problems. As much as I respect my small cadre of dedicated readers, they have no say in any aspect of my work…nor will I make adjustments to a book or story with the aim of pleasing them (or anyone). I don’t write Choose Your Own Adventure” books, y’know?

Here’s what I will tell you:

My novel is tentatively titled Based on a True Story and it will clock in at around 220 pages (60,000 words). About the same length as my western, The Last Hunt. Genre? Mainstream, crime fiction (of sorts), an old mystery coming to the surface. No fantastic elements whatsoever.

Let’s see, what other questions have people been asking…

Is it a personal project?

Huh? All of my work employs my odd, personal take on things. And while much of it might contain incidents from life, very little of my writing is strictly autobiographical. Characters and situations entirely the product of my fertile and perverse imagination. You wanna write about yourself? Start a fucking diary…

Is it another case for Zinnea & Nightstalk?

No.

Will there eventually be another Zinnea and--

Yes. When it’s time and I clear some of the other stuff off my desk.

Other projects? Like what? Can you give me an example?

Aha. Good for you. Not a chance.

Why do you take so long to release your books?

Because I want to get them right.

Why are each of your books so different?

I don’t want to get stuck in a rut. Look, my own tastes are wide-ranging and eclectic and I want to see that reflected in my literary efforts. I disdain writers who author the same book over and over again or explore the same universe in a ridiculously long and convoluted series, milking their invented world for all it’s worth. That’s why I’m not pounding out one Zinnea & Nightstalk mystery after another, even though, God knows, that would delight many people out there. I’m not a hack, I’m a creative artist who wants to challenge himself, push the limits of a very finite and modest-sized talent. That’s the way I’ve approached literature for the past thirty (30) years and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Is this latest book cinematic like the others? Your stuff always seems like it could easily be adapted into movies.

Hmm. Yes, definitely. I see what you mean. And a number of my efforts have been optioned…but it never seems to go anywhere. Last month a film-maker contacted me about one of my novellas and it ended badly. I wrote about it over on my RedRoom blog. It isn’t pretty. Hope it serves as an object lesson to other writers out there who might be going through the same thing. Stand up for yourself and remember: until you sign that contract, you hold all the power. Do your homework and work your ass off to get the best possible deal. Don’t get screwed because you’re humble, shy and/or dislike confrontation. People like that get eaten alive.

*********************************

That’s it for now. Still have a full day of editing ahead of me. Should be finished this latest run-through (draft #3) in the next three or four days. Then some time off (it’s been 32 days straight of 10-12 hour writing sessions), do some background reading and research and then…on to draft #4.

Write on…

Read Full Post »

UnidentifiedFolks:

Sorry. Geez. Talk about belated.

Several weeks since my last post and I offer no excuses, no rationale. Yes, I’ve been editing the third draft of my new novel, going through its 200+ pages over and over, shaping and paring, trying to find a consistent voice, a smooth, narrative flow. And, yes, my days are long and intense and my focus can be downright scary at times. That need to immerse myself (there’s no other word) in the world I’m building, basically from scratch. It’s important to envision that creation in as much detail as I possibly can so that it seems credible and fully formed. I know my readers are pretty discerning people.

You have to understand, at times like this, when I’m going full-bore on a project, it’s easy for the rest of Earth Prime to fade away…and that means all ties, all friendships, all responsibilities become, well, superfluous. Wish I could put it more nicely but that’s just the way it is. Sometimes in order to meet the demands of my work I have to become selfish and solipsistic…it’s one of the least attractive aspects of being a creative artist. When a project reaches this state, I literally have to take a leave of absence from my regular life and that can be hard on family, friends and, yes, my small circle of readers and blog followers.

The end result is a completed novel or short story but getting there, while still retaining contact with the people who mean the most to you…that can be a struggle.

I guess what I’m trying to say is be patient with me, know that I’m operating in the thrall of my Muse, my imagination racing, my brain clicking on all cylinders. If in the performance of my duties I’m negligent in terms of my worldly obligations, it is, for me, a necessary (even mandatory) state of affairs.

You want to know what life is like for a full-time, independent author?

Well, there it is.

**********************

In the pipeline…

Some publication news for you: as well as the novel, this year I’ll  be working on a new edition of my very first book, a short story collection titled Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination. The collection was released back in 1990, the entire print run selling out in a matter of months. It’s virtually impossible to lay your hands on a copy of Sex and I’m going to address that by re-issuing it with a new cover, Introduction and Afterword. I’ll be formatting and correcting the manuscript this summer and will publish it through my Black Dog Press imprint either later this year or in early 2015 (the 25th anniversary of its original publication).

The new novel, meanwhile, is slated for a Spring, 2015 release.

Drop in for further updates as the year progresses.

Like Rothko

Read Full Post »

DSC00298Over two weeks since my last post. Two weeks. That’s a ridiculous interval of time between messages. What kind of an excuse can I possibly make? Abducted by UFOs (again)?

Well, y’know…as I believe I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m a lousy self-promoter. I’m really bad at plugging this site and shilling my books. Daily blog entries, comments on other sites, utilizing social networks, joining on-line forums and groups, indulging in high profile flame wars, appearing at every convention, doing all the right things to draw attention to yourself…not for me. The problem, of course, is time.

I write every day. Every. Single. Day. Get up, usually around 7:30, and the first thing I do is cross the hall to my office and turn on the computer. Within ten minutes, I’m holding a really strong, well-sugared coffee and doing a quick scan of my emails, checking the overnight news. The past year or two, the good ol’ BBC has been my primary reality filter. Love their radio comedies and dramas too. Michael Hordern and Richard Briers as “Jeeves and Wooster”. Sublime.

From quite early in the morning until, often, after supper, I’m tapping away, composing or editing, and I do it about 360 days of the year (the rest, I’m either sick, dead or it’s Christmas). I’m only fully alive, fully realized when I’m hard at work on a project, all of my senses engaged. And so, as soon as I finish one book, I abandon it and move on to the next, my mind already seeking fresh material, a new intellectual or aesthetic puzzle to solve.

It’s almost machine-like, as if I’m programmed to sketch and shape words, to the detriment of almost everything else. Sometimes I’ve sacrificed valuable, irreplaceable time with my family in order to stay glued to my desk. That’s a shameful admission but also an unflinching depiction of my devotion to my work.

And I’ve been doing it, basically, since 1985, the year I turned “professional”. Over 25 years of toiling, day by day, to improve at my craft, sharpen my skills, be the best writer I can possibly be. Innovative and original and daring.

That’s why I’m so hard on wannabes and ridiculous enterprises like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Art is a serious, full-time business. It is a calling on the spiritual level, a voice in the absolute inner silence of your soul that insists, regardless of the circumstances, that you must pick up a pen or sit before a keyboard, marshal your tangled, chaotic thoughts and…create. And you do that not just for a month, not until you reach some artificially imposed plateau, but every single day until you are dead.

Got it?

***************************************

Tomorrow I’ll finish the second draft of my new novel. At this point it hovers around 200 pages and 50,000 words.

That’s what I’ve been working on, without pause, since August 3rd.

My so-called life.

********************************

DSC00287Did manage to see a good movie at the Broadway Theater in Saskatoon. You’ll find my review of “Blancanieves” over at my film blog.

The last couple of nights, Sherron and Sam set up a backyard movie theater, projecting films on the side of our house. “The Artist” was smashing, earning an ovation at its conclusion, and last night it was “Amelie”. Dunno if there are going to be too many more showings. The temperature dips awful quickly after dark in these parts around this time of year.

It’s been a beautiful, warm autumn. The colors in our river valley would entrance Van Gogh (and our clear, starry nights can’t be beat). Feeling inspired, enlivened by a clarity of purpose, the certainty I am working on a project worthy of my efforts, a book that challenges and scares me a little. That frisson I experience when I sit down and open the file, stare at the screen, wondering if I can find it within me today to summon the courage and faith required to be the best writer I can be.

And then, gradually, sensing the spell begin to take hold…

DSC00288

Read Full Post »

100_0750I can hardly fathom it, but this is blog post #299.

Wow.

When I consider the amount of writing that represents, the amount of words, I’m more than a little taken aback.

I find it fascinating how much the blog has morphed in the past six years. It started out as a platform for an angry-not-so-young man venting about the stupidity of traditional publishing and now it’s pretty much anything goes.  A couple of years ago I started adding music and short films and recorded spoken word pieces—that was exciting. New technologies put film-making, the creation of music and visual art, into the hands of more of us and while that’s led to an explosion of amateurism and incompetence, it has also allowed a few bright lights to shine as they try out new disciplines (and make some rather brilliant beginner’s mistakes).

But the absolute best part of having this blog is that it puts me in person-to-person contact with my readers. I was somewhat slow getting on the whole blogging bandwagon but now I can’t tell you how thrilled I am at how many people have written and reached out to me through this site. I soon came to realize I have readers from virtually every part of the world—I recall one chap who wrote to me from a university classroom in Melbourne, Australia. Bored with his instructor, wanting to talk about writing. Still makes me smile.

I’m also pleased that Beautiful Desolation has put me in touch with fellow indie artists, writers and musicians who have little truck with the corporate scene and want to express themselves without interference or compromise. I think after close to 30 years in this biz, I’m seen as some kind of “grand old man” of indie writing/publishing. Occasionally, I’ll get calls or e-mails from someone in the press, a reporter seeking my views on independent publishing, e-books, the state of writing in general, and I have to smile. As a prognosticator, my record isn’t exactly stellar. I think I’m on record as saying a few years back that e-readers were mere gadgets and people would eventually tire of them and return to physical books.

Ahem…

Let’s face it, life ain’t easy for us indie types. Most publications refuse to take us seriously or review our work so it’s very hard to get any “buzz” going when we release new material. On top of that, there’s the absolutely unprecedented amount of writing being released these days (see my last blog post), and that flood of material, that deluge of (mostly) offal, renders it well-nigh impossible to draw readers to excellent, literate, world-class writing. Who wants to pick through a reeking dung pile in the faint hope you might find a glistening pearl?

But I’ve stuck it out for nearly three decades, refusing to be cowed by idiotic editors and scumbag agents. Yeah, the money is lousy and the rewards few and far between but, y’know what? My strange little imprint has released some really fine titles over the years and there isn’t one of them I’m not honored to call mine. No hackwork, no sharecropping, no selling out. Every one of my books, right from the first, is original, innovative, literary, intelligent. How does that compare with the shite polluting the last box store you browsed?

* * * *

A couple of weeks since my previous post and you know what that means:

25,000 words on paper in the last ten days. A new project in a new “genre” I’ve never tried before. Good Lord. Sometimes even longtime readers must just throw up their hands and wonder what possesses me. I wish I knew. All I can do is follow my Muse, wherever she leads me. And often that’s taken me into some mighty strange territories. I mean, a western, for heaven’s sake?

I’m quite encouraged by this new project (still unnamed) but it’s going to involve a lot of research at some point. As soon as this rough draft is completed, I’ll be Googling like a sumbitch, trying to find out all about—well, never mind. Think I’ll wait a bit, hold off until this piece is further along before I open up about it. Even my wife is in the dark as to what I’m up to.

Not much time for leisure and entertainment in the past while, but my sons and I did manage to zip in to Saskatoon to see Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest flick, “Only God Forgives”. My review appears over on my film blog.

One last thing:  three hundred blog posts deserves some kind of special recognition. So I’ve prepared a treat for #300, a little freebie for everyone who’s dropped in out of curiosity and came back because they liked what they saw.

My thanks to you, one and all.

DSC00247

Read Full Post »

The latest royalty figures have arrived from Lightning Source and the news is mighty grim.

Print and e-book sales of my Black Dog Press titles have pretty much bottomed out in the last few months. If I ran a real publishing house, I’d have been shown the door (with no golden handshake) a long time ago.

Of course, it doesn’t help that my last four books were almost doomed to fail:  The Last Hunt is a novel set in the Old West and, let’s face it, cowboy yarns aren’t exactly leaping off the shelves these days; following that, I released two companion volumes of verse and prose poems…not what any sane person would consider bestseller material.

And my latest book, Exceptions & Deceptions, is a short story collection. Yes, you heard correctly: a short story collection. And, yeah, I’m aware that no one reads short fiction any more and that, as a format, it’s as dead and buried as Ramses II.

What can I tell you, I’m a throwback. I love obsolete art forms like short stories and silent movies and radio dramas and mixed tapes. I own two Super 8 movie cameras and and a five year old iMac. I collect plastic model kits and first editions of books by Philip K. Dick.  I know, it’s pathetic. A man my age…

I pay little heed to current trends and fashions. One glance at the bestseller lists or what’s prominent on the “New Release” racks is enough to set my teeth on edge. Whenever people complain to me about the poor state of writing in the indie/self-published world, I invariably reply have you been inside a bookstore lately?

Folks, I don’t know about you but I’m finding it harder and harder to find good writers. This despite the fact that there have never been more books published, the internet and print on demand outfits making it easy for anyone to put out a book. And that’s the trouble. These days, everyone from your dotty aunt to her pet parakeet call themselves “authors” and never mind that they’ve never mastered grade school spelling or punctuation and think “thesaurus” was one of those old Greek guys who taught philosophy and tried to seduce his students. No vetting of manuscripts, no quality control and, as a result, no quality. The worst of the worst. And with diminished expectations, publishers scramble and claw at each other in the race to the bottom of the barrel. Fifty Shades of Grey. The gospel according to “Snooki”. Christ. Offer North American readers unlimited shelf space, a world of knowledge at their fingertips and what do they select as their reading material of choice?

100_0795Fan fiction and paranormal romance.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. We’re a society obsessed by superficiality; the cult of celebrity holds sway and most of us would do anything for a few moments in the limelight, our allotted fifteen seconds of fame. We want to know what the important people are doing so we can act and dress and think like them. They are the annointed ones, lit from within by some special flame. Like Prometheus, we seek to steal their fire but not for the good of humankind, but to keep it and nurture it within ourselves. To out-shine the common people and know what it’s like to be royalty. Flashing that vapid Kate Middleton smile. Winking to your adoring fans like Brad Pitt. Besieged in your own homes. Stalked because you’re you. The universal dream.

The arts are not immune to such asinine sensibilities. Today’s aspiring writers don’t want to have to work at their craft. Spend endless hours coming up with original concepts, a fresh approach or innovation. Easier to borrow characters and plot lines, sharecrop franchises, remain on well-worn paths. Stick with the old stand-bys: porn and elves, vampires and chick lit. Serial killers and serial adulterers. The living dead and the mindlessly idiotic. All for 99 cents a download, forty thousand words and not one of them in tune.

It used to be our role models were Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Don DeLillo.

Now everyone wants to be Dan Brown, James Patterson or Nora Roberts. Not good, just rich.

How can I compete with that kind of mentality? Why should I bother going through the effort and not inconsiderable expense of conceiving, writing and releasing my books, some of them taking years to bring to fruition? Who’s going to notice my smart, sharp-toothed prose when there are hundreds of thousands of books churned out every year, all of them clamoring for attention, aggressively lobbying readers for just a few minutes of their time…

But if you’re an artist and you start down that road, it isn’t long before discouragement and contempt for your fellow human beings overwhelms you. You become sick in your soul, envious of others, dismissive and scornful; a universe of one.

No, what it comes down to in the end is the work. Keeping on keeping on. Laboring on behalf of the legacy of literature, those authors of the past and present who expand our horizons, warp and distort our perspectives, enlivening our moribund senses with the vitality and courage of their visions. You know their names, they’re the writers who set fire to your imagination, whisper words of commiseration during a difficult time, speak intimately to your heart when the rest of the world seems oblivious to your very existence.

The hacks don’t do that for you. The scribblers who aim to please and reassure and entertain, even at the expense of their integrity. They don’t care about you and they have nothing important to say. They’re in it for the wrong reasons, motivated by little more than greed and pride, surely the most venal of sins.

The authors I revere and try to emulate have a higher calling.

The best of them eschew fame and fortune, forsaking all trappings of success in favor of a singular and personal approach to their work, persisting regardless of ignominy, poverty, shame. Willing to sacrifice their bodies and minds as long as they are permitted to pursue their calling with dedication and obsessive zeal. Nothing dissuades or discourages them.

Brave as any frontline soldier, resolved to forge on to the bitter end.

No medals, no plaques—often, not even a well-tended grave.

Messengers and prophets, making “visible what, without them, might perhaps never have been seen”*.

Awaiting our discovery, keepers of the Logos, brilliant revelations yet to be told.

DSC00186

* Robert Bresson

Read Full Post »

Cliff/SnowTake a look at this.

We’ve had more snow this winter than in at least a decade. We’ve broken one snow shovel, shaken our fists at the sky and moved God knows how many tons of snow from our sidewalks and property. And, of course, this much snow means a big run-off come Spring. It’s a good thing we’re situated on a fairly substantial hill—hopefully the water will flow down and away from us.

I notice that at 49, snow shoveling is a whole lot less fun than it used to be. I have to take frequent breaks, lean on my shovel, gazing glumly at the white expanse in front of me. Our long driveway has become my nemesis; I joke that it’s an alternative landing strip for the space shuttle. I say even worse things when I’m scraping it off at thirty below. Because as well as being a snowy winter in these parts, it’s also been seasonably cold. Note the choice of words. We’ve gotten off lucky for the past few years, experiencing relatively mild cold seasons. Not this year. 2012-13, we’re getting the real deal. Saskatchewan at its most nasty and inclement.

In the old days, the cold never got to me. I could play road hockey with my pals until our clothes were frozen stiff as cardboard, our cheeks and noses raw and inflamed. Not any more. My body has developed a strange sensitivity over the past decade and I’m prone to awful chills, getting the shakes so bad my jaw locks tight and my body stiffens, arms clamped against my sides, shoulders up around my ears.

I think I’m starting to understand why so many Canadians become “snowbirds”, fleeing to warmer climes as soon as the first Arctic front descends from the north.

But this is Canada, after all, and whining about the cold weather is like complaining that grapes won’t grow on Pluto. There are certain realities you just have to adjust to, certain mentalities you have to adapt.

Be at one with the snow…become your shovel...

Keeping in mind, in six months we’ll be bitching about the heat and bugs.

On that happy note…Cheers!

Snow2

Read Full Post »


100_0738I’ve been editing my short story collection Exceptions & Deceptions since November and, I gotta say, the grind is starting to get to me.

Writers who put great stock in their editing know exactly what I’m talking about. You can obsessively work on a piece to near irrationality, trying to get the sound, the tone exactly right. Note perfect.

The art, after all, is not in the initial act of creation, it’s how you shape and hone the material afterward.  Can’t tell you how many books or short stories I’ve read where I had to give credit for the originality of a concept or approach, only to see that uniqueness surrounded, besieged and eventually defeated by drab, unremarkable prose; featureless, uncolored sentences, bereft of rhythm, dumb as stone.

Right from the beginning, I wanted to tell my stories as simply as I could, in as few words as possible. I loathe long reams of description or exposition, what some of my colleagues call “info dumping”. Conversely, I love snappy dialogue and believe that a brief conversation between two people reveals far more about them than five pages of backstory.

I take the editing process to ridiculous extremes. Exceptions & Deceptions includes (at least at this point) around twenty stories culled from the past fifteen years. Most have been previously published but that doesn’t mean I can’t go in and “touch them up”. I’m a different writer than I was back then, a better writer. I’ve raised the bar a number of times since I began the oldest story more than a decade and a half ago.

I’m also a tougher, more demanding editor.

So I’ve really been putting these nineteen tales through their paces, demanding that every word, every syllable be accounted for.

It’s a tiring process. Make that exhausting (more descriptive and accurate). Three months of poring over three hundred manuscript pages, running through them again and again, watching and listening for anything the slightest bit off-key . Going at it day and night, seven days a week. Falling into bed utterly spent, knowing the collection will be the first thing to pop into my head when I open my eyes in seven or eight hours.

But, honestly, I don’t think it’s as bad as it used to be. I pace myself a bit better these days. Take frequent short breaks, stretch, go for walks. Shut down my brain earlier, try to unwind with a movie or good book in the evening. I go for a massage occasionally and sometimes Sherron will set up our big, clunky table, give my shoulders and lower back a solid working over. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the woman has healing hands.

Over the past few years, I’ve been making a concerted effort to break this cycle of artistic self-abuse. Thanks to tools like Garageband and iMovie, I’ve been able to expand my horizons to other disciplines and, with Sherron’s encouragement, I’ve been applying myself to more visual art: painting, collage, photography. I’ve periodically posted samples of my film and music experiments, the ones that don’t blow up and end up wrecking my secret lab. I no longer rely on the printed word solely to express myself…and I think that’s a healthy development. Might even literally be a life-saver.

However, I sense that no matter what steps I take, writing will always take a toll on me. I want to be an author of stature, respected by my peers, acknowledged and sought after by intelligent, discerning readers. Placing those kinds of expectations on yourself as you commence each new poem, play, novel, short story is bound to create enormous creative tensions, which might translate into fine work, but are also accompanied by certain rather distressing emotional and physical side effects. Trust me.

That said, I have to stop equating the creative process with torture. There has to be a happy medium. I have to approach my work more playfully and allow myself the very human possibility of failure. I don’t want my fiction to become so perfect, polished and tight it’s almost robotic.

Ease up.

Recognize my writing for the blessing it is, rather than a curse that exacts nothing but pain and toil.

Yes, a blessing. A gift. A calling.

So, if that’s the case, what’s with all the angst?

100_0741

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 254 other followers