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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)

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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…

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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…

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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

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HeadIn previous years, I’ve posted about Christmas in a variety of ways.

A few years back I provided some background into the real story of St. Nicholas

…and let us not forget the Christmas tale I wrote employing the two main characters from my supernatural thriller, So Dark the Night. “Finding Charlotte” is a case from Zinnea and Nightstalk’s early days and it’s available for free download and reading.

To my friends and readers, everyone who follows my work:

MERRY CHRISTMAS.

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I posted a roster of my favorite reads of 2013 for the benefit of my LibraryThing group, thought I’d reproduce it here. Most of these books aren’t new releases…and as I compiled this year’s list, I quickly realized I read more non-fiction than fiction, hardly any genre stuff, almost no “commercial” fiction.

Fascinating how my reading has changed over the past decade…

Fiction:

WEREWOLVES IN THEIR YOUTH (short stories) by Michael Chabon
I AM A BEAUTIFUL MONSTER by Francis Picabia
THE BLUE OCTAVO NOTEBOOKS by Franz Kafka
HANGOVER SQUARE by Patrick Hamilton
TENTH OF DECEMBER (short stories) by George Saunders

Non-fiction:

LEGACY OF ASHES by Tim Weiner
THE GREAT WAR FOR CIVILIZATION by Robert Fisk
AN ARMY AT DAWN: THE WAR IN NORTH AFRICA by Rick Atkinson
EVERY STORY IS A GHOST STORY by D.T. Max
NIXONLAND by Rick Perlstein
KAFKA: THE DECISIVE YEARS by Reiner Stach

Have you assembled your “Best of…” list for 2013 yet?

If you have, let’s hear it…

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CliffBurns1A number of things on my plate in the past while, which leads, inevitably, to another long gap between posts.

Starting with the fun stuff, I attended a screening of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic “Nosferatu” and wrote about it over on my film blog. Some musicians from the Saskatoon Symphony provided accompaniment and, what can I tell you, it was an absolutely brilliant evening. The following day I turned fifty and couldn’t imagine a more fitting way to celebrate.

Yeah, I said celebrate. I’ve hit the big five-oh and, okay, physically I’m not as strong or durable as I was twenty years ago, but mentally and artistically I feel close to the top of my game. Growing spiritually, as well, and that’s an ongoing process. I’m in a good space, some of the fears and obsessional thinking that once upon a time dragged me down are either gone or have eased to the point where they no longer cause the kind of damage they used to. My family played a huge part in that transformation and also the sense that my life and work are serving a tiny role in a Grand Design God-knows-how-many years in progress. My faith life is essential to my entire sense of well-being; without it, I’m a miserable cur, hardly worthy of consideration, barely rating a glance.

In terms of my work:

Researching for the novel, reading reference books and trolling on-line for more info, looking for those obscure little tid-bits that add the perfect dollop of detail to a scene, imparting an authenticity that makes the Reader shiver (love those moments).

I collaborated on a sound collage with my youngest son, Sam. He’s getting to be quite the musician so when my wife asked the two of us to put together an “environment” for a puppet and mask project she’s creating, I was curious to see what we came up with. Turned out to be a weird, ambient piece nearly four minutes long. Now we’re going to edit together a short film using that soundtrack and footage Sherron’s assembled over the last couple of years. Hope to have that done in the next week or so.

What else…well, I’d been giving some thought to writing something for the CBC/Enroute Short Story Contest but every time I checked my well of inspiration, it was dry as fossilized bone. So with the deadline looming I’d pretty much given up any notion of sending anything…until a couple of days ago, when I sat down and started tapping away, managing to complete a tale that adhered to the 1500 word limit (barely) and turned out to be a darn good story. Imagine that—posted it yesterday, just under the wire.

Have to confess, I hate entering or submitting my work anywhere—as an indie, I’d rather publish it myself. But the prize money for a six page story is unbelievable, ridiculous, and the notion of spending two weeks in residence at Banff…how could I resist?

From what I’ve heard, the contest receives between 1800-2000 entries annually, so I’m not holding my breath.

But wouldn’t it be nice…

What else? Ah, I’ve been in my basement cave, doing some more painting. A couple of canvases currently being prepped, exercising my visual muscles, expressing myself beyond the precincts of the printed word. Who cares if I’m any good at it?

And music, lots of music playing, which is always an indication I’m in an inspired state of mind. Frequently heard these days: The Eels, Bob Mould, Brain Jonestown Massacre, Jimmy Eat World, R.L. Burnside, Radio Moscow, old Dylan. Keeping it eclectic.

I guess that just about sums things up. Heading into November around here, but the yard work is pretty much done, all I have to do is order some pine wood and see about winter tires for the car.

The next six to eight months will be spent on the novel (mostly), so by Spring, 2014 I should have the lion’s share of the editing done (crosses his fingers). I’ll keep you apprised of developments and, hopefully, will be posting more frequently than I have been of late.

But no promises…

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Photo: Sam Burns

Photo: Sam Burns

My chum Yury Sabinin has been very busy of late.

If you recall, he’s the chap who has taken it upon himself to translate some of my best stories into Russian. Originally, he set himself the task because he had a acquaintance back in Russia (Yury currently resides in B.C.) who he thought might appreciate my work. But she spoke no English so he very magnanimously decided to do the translations himself—he got in touch with me to secure my permission for the endeavor and I was genuinely touched by his devotion to his friend.

Here are his translations of two of my most well-known short stories, “The Hibakusha” and “Cattletruck”. Both are post-apocalypse tales from my very first collection, Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination (1990)…but they couldn’t be more different. You’ll find the original English versions on my Novels & Stories page. Meanwhile, for those of you fluent in Russian, check out Yury’s translations. Click on the PDFs below and away you go:

 

CliffBurnsСкотовоз

CliffBurnsХибакуся

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Picture 2To me, he was the best.

When you read a Richard Matheson novel or story you believe it and you believe it because his characters are real people, reacting as real people would when placed in an extreme situation or confronted by the uncanny. Robert Neville, the protagonist of I Am Legend, is the sole survivor of a worldwide plague, the last living human on a planet of vampires. But Neville is no square-jawed, ass-kicking hero, he is a lonely man, his isolation gradually driving him mad. One day, and he knows this, he will simply open the door, walk out and let the waiting creatures take him, ending his suffering. The Shrinking Man’s Scott Carey loses more than his height as his mysterious affliction gradually reduces him to microscopic proportions. He battles gamely to retain his masculinity, his identity and, finally, in life and death battles with predatory animals and insects, his very existence.

More than any other writer of dark fantasy except, perhaps, Ray Bradbury and his friend and colleague Charles Beaumont, Matheson wrote tales that make your heart ache. As you read the story “Little Girl Lost” you experience that poor father’s panic when he realizes his daughter is calling out to him from a place beyond his reach. “Mute” and “Steel” are incredibly sad, affecting stories, offering only thin glimmers of hope, a fleeting chance of redemption.

He and Beaumont were critical influences on my early writing—I knew them first through their work on “The Twilight Zone”. Only later was I lucky enough to scoop up their short story collections (both thrive in the short format) in affordable (usually used) editions, reading their tales over and over again. About twelve years ago I packaged up some of those collections and sent them to Mr. Matheson for signing (along with a self-addressed stamped envelope). He was good enough to oblige and now those books are the treasures of my collection.

I think Stephen King said something along the lines of Matheson deserving credit for taking horror out of the moors and forests and bringing it into the suburbs. I can’t think of a single good horror writer from the past thirty years who wouldn’t consider him the dean of dark fantasy and cast their eyes downward at the mere mention of his name.

And let’s not forget, he could also turn his hand to other kinds of writing. I’ve read several of his western novels and they stand up well compared to the rest of the field. He had a lifelong interest in matters relating to the power and potential of the human soul. He took his researches into the paranormal seriously and the depth of his knowledge manifests itself in what I think is his finest novel, Hell House. His was an active, seeking mind, restless and sharp and, at least when it came to his work, unsentimental and occasionally pitiless. That’s part of what made him great.

I feel a real sense of loss tonight. Yes, I know he was eighty-seven years old and his time had come. I desperately wish I’d had a chance to meet him, exchange a few words with him. I doubt I would have said anything remarkable or cogent. Of all the Big Boys, I suppose there’s only Harlan Ellison and one or two others left.

There’s a strong sense, a la the demise of Bradbury and Harryhausen, of an era coming to an end.

The King is Dead! The King is Dead!

Long will we mourn his passing.

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I’ve okayed the proof and now one hundred copies of my short story collection Exceptions & Deceptions are jetting my way.

Should be able to start filling orders within a week—and I’ve already received numerous inquiries.

Click on the “Book Store” tab at the top of the page or go here for ordering details.

Support an indie publisher and get a head start on your summer reading.

And I promise: you’re going to love this book…

Exceptions:cover

(Click on image to enlarge)

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