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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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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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This weekend, I completed final edits on my latest book, a collection of short stories titled Exceptions & Deceptions.

The title is derived from a quote by Francis Picabia: “The unknown is an exception, the known a deception”.

The collection features 19 stories, including a novella titled “Second Sight”, which is previously unpublished. It’s my first book of stories since The Reality Machine (1997) and, needless to say, I’m ecstatic to see these tales finally in print.

I’ve settled on a cover but I’ll keep it under my hat until our mate, Chris Kent, designs a mockup for us to post.

This is going to be a bee-you-tiful book.

Projected publication date of mid-June.

Stay tuned.

* * * * *

By now you’ve probably heard the rotten news regarding the health of one of the literary greats, Iain Banks.

Fifty-nine years old.

…and suddenly all the little foibles and annoyances in my own life seem pretty feeble.

If you haven’t already, make sure you seek out and read one of his fine books. The Wasp Factory, maybe the best debut novel I’ve read, and two truly magnificent science fiction offerings, Consider Phlebas and Excession.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: it’s an honor sharing a universe with the likes of Iain Banks.

His work is a tribute to the power of imagination, that very human capacity to envision and describe impossible worlds…and make the faraway and exotic come to life.

Thank you, Mr. Banks. For every word you’ve committed to paper, the dreams you’ve willingly shared.

* * * * *

A wonderful surprise in my virtual mailbox this past week. Yury Sabinin, an industrious chap now residing on Canada’s west coast, has taken it upon himself to translate some of my better known works into Russian. It initially started as an exercise for a non-English speaking friend overseas but now Yury has completed a couple of translations, “Apocalypse Beach” and “Invisible Boy”, which I offer for free reading/download.

My gratitude to Yury for granting his permission to reproduce those translations here.

Just click on the links below:

Apocalypse (Translation)

Invisible Boy:Translation

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Can’t tell you how many people have written or approached me, asking: “When are you going to write another Zinnea & Nightstalk book?”.

And each time I’ve tried to explain that I after I finished So Dark the Night, I fully expected to write more accounts of my partners in crime…but it just didn’t happen. I could no longer hear Nightstalk’s voice and, after awhile, moved on (with regret) to other things.

But a few weeks ago, my old friend Evgeny Nightstalk dropped in for a visit. Not an extended stay, I could only pry a short story out of him, a case from their first months together, an affair (wouldn’t you know it), set around Christmas time. Maybe Nightstalk was cutting me some slack for his long absence.

Here’s the first part of “Finding Charlotte”…if you’d like to read the rest, click on the link and you’ll find the complete PDF. Free reading, I should add: read it, download it, share it with friends. And if “Finding Charlotte” strikes your fancy, have a look at So Dark the Night. It’s a grand adventure, my two supernatural detectives involved with all manner of Lovecraftian monstrosities and occult-oriented schemes. A fast-paced yarn, I think you’ll love it.

And now:

* * * * * * * *

Finding Charlotte (A Zinnea & Nightstalk Mystery)

 

Cassandra Zinnea called them “C.O.N.C.s”.  Cases of no consequence. She could be snooty like that sometimes. I told her once, hey, even Sherlock Holmes realized they can’t all be Studies in Scarlet or whatever. When you get handed a lemon, y’know, make lemonade.

She didn’t buy it. She got bored pretty easily. Very Holmes-like that way. Only she had different diversions than a seven per cent solution of cocaine. It’s debatable if they were any healthier in the long run but, well, that’s a discussion for another time.

The affair involving the disappearance of Charlotte Bednarski didn’t have a promising beginning and you’ll have to decide for yourself if everything worked out for the best in the end. I’m not what you would call big on analysis. That’s my partner’s domain. Smart and gorgeous, the complete package. Miss Marple and a Victoria’s Secrets model all rolled into one. As kind and decent a human being as you’re likely to encounter this side of Heaven. And that’s why it was nearly killing her giving the Turnbulls the bad news.

“—so terribly sorry,” Cassandra said, standing in front of our shared desk, her voice quaking with emotion. “It’s official policy and I’m afraid there are no exceptions. We don’t handle missing persons cases or divorces. We’ve found they both involve too many…complications. You say you’ve already been to the police—”

Dennis Turnbull snorted. “Fat lot of good they were. Wouldn’t give us the time of day, would they, hon? What’s this world coming to?” He was chubby, forty-ish, some kind of nerd. Baby fat and large, soft features. Likely cried during sappy movies and was good about helping with the washing up. A “girly man”, as my buddy Arnold would say.

I was hearing warning bells. The cops in Ilium may not have been top drawer in many respects but they tended to ramp up their game when there were children  involved. “How long did you say your kid’s been missing? Two days?” They nodded, tired and discouraged, leaning into each other. The wife seemed older, utilizing a full palette of makeup to disguise her true age. Offhand, I’d say she applied it with a trowel. But they were nice people, just addled, desperate. “You gave us the impression she was quite young…”

“Around nine, I would say,” Cheryl Turnbull confirmed, “but small for her age.”

That sounded funny but at that point Cassandra jumped in. “So this isn’t any ordinary runaway. She’s under-aged, alone out there…” She choked up. Mrs. Turnbull nodded, the two of them close to blubbering.

“That’s what we tried to tell the police,” she croaked, “but they wouldn’t listen.”

I could see my partner wavering and decided enough was enough. “Yeah, that’s, uh, definitely strange and if I were you I’d, uh, definitely go back there and get them to put out an A.P.B. on your daughter and—”

Dennis Turnbull was shaking his head. He tapped his wife’s leg and they rose together. “We’ve been humiliated enough, thank you very much. That Detective-Sergeant or whatever he said he was. Snowden…” I glanced at my partner. “You must know the man. He’s the one who told us to come down here. ‘The court of last resort’, he called you.”

“He’s an idiot,” Cassandra said.

“What she says,” I added.

The Turnbulls helped each other on with their coats. We could only stand there and watch.

“I have to correct you on one point, Mr. Nightstalk.” Dennis Turnbull tugged brown leather gloves over his thick fingers; it was a cold night, a week ’til Christmas, the wind off Lake Erie downright lethal. “Charlotte wasn’t our daughter. My wife and I are childless by choice.” She offered us a thin smile. Not entirely by choice, it seemed to say.

Now I was really confused. “So…she was a niece? A neighbor–”

“Oh, no, she lived with us.”

Cassandra and I exchanged befuddled looks. “Adopted?” she ventured.

“A lodger?”

“No, she was there when we moved in.” She saw our bafflement. “She came with the house.”

Ah

Nope, still didn’t get it. But Cassandra did, I could tell from her spreading smile. Suddenly the case had become much more interesting.

I blundered on. “She was living there? Like…squatting?”

“No, Nightstalk,” my partner corrected me. “She’s always lived there.”

The Turnbulls smiled at each other. “She’s the reason we bought the place,” Cheryl Turnbull confided. “The location is nice but the backyard is far too small for our tastes.”

“We both like to garden,” Dennis chimed in.

“But once Charlotte made herself known to us…we knew we couldn’t let it go.” They were standing by the door. “It’s been ten years now and we’ve never regretted it a moment.” They clasped hands. Forming a common front.

Cassandra’s demeanor had undergone a radical transformation; all at once she was in full hunt mode. “Now that we’re more fully apprised of the situation,” checking with me for confirmation, “I think we might be of service to you after all.”

“Just don’t call her a ghost,” Cheryl Turnbull pleaded, crossing toward us, holding out her hands, a big purse looped over her wrist. “That awful Snowden man kept saying that. I hate it. Ghosts are feeble and sad and pathetic. Charlotte is none of those things. She has a personality, a—a—”

“Easy now, dear,” her husband coaxed her, “we’re among friends here.” He regarded us hopefully as he patted her shoulder. “It’s nice to be with folks who don’t make you feel like you’re, y’know, coo coo.”

“We’ve lost friends, even our families won’t come to visit.” Cheryl Turnbull managed to look hurt and defiant. “Just because we set an extra place at the table or put on her favorite show when it’s time. What’s that to any of them?”

I could only manage a sickly grin so they focused their attention on my lovely colleague. She, in contrast, gave off waves of understanding and empathy.

“Come over here and have a seat. We’ll start again.” Signaling me. “My associate, Mr. Nightstalk, will take down the particulars. Give us a bit of background and talk about the day she went missing. All the details you can think of, no matter how inconsequential they might seem.” I found my steno pad and a pen. “Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of this…”

To read the complete story, click here:  Finding Charlotte

 

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Hope to see some of you folks in Saskatoon tomorrow night (Wednesday, October 12th).  The place:  McNally Robinson bookstore on 8th Street.

The show starts promptly at 7:30.  (Here are the details.)

Yeah, I said “show”.  Because readings are public performances and I do my level best to make them as interesting and entertaining as I can.  The best I’ve ever seen was Timothy Findley; man, could that guy read.  And, natch, Tiff had a background in live theater.  He knew how to turn it up a notch.

Others…not so much.  I was at a reading once (no names!) featuring an award-winning poet, an icon of Canadian verse…and it was so appalling, so utterly fake and ridiculous, that it was all I could do to keep from shrieking with laughter.  Cripes, he was funny.  My wife kept trying to catch my eye but I refused to look at her, knowing we’d lose it and make a spectacle of ourselves.  Little beads of sweat trickled down my temples as I fought to keep my composure.

He’d speak in this silly, affected voice, dragging out certain words:  “The wind…moved through…the grassssss…”

Hee hee.  Still makes me chuckle.  What an arsehole.

I gave a reading on Baffin Island, sharing the bill with another writer who read so long that the candles in the wine bottles burned down and fell to the glass bottoms, extinguishing themselves.  The room getting darker and darker as more and more of the stubs dropped.  Pshh. Pshh.  Pssh.

About seventeen years ago, I made the mistake of agreeing to read in a bar in Ottawa.  The regulars tuned in for about the first six or eight minutes but then the noise level began to rise and I started frantically cutting passages as I read, rushing to finish the performance as quickly as I could.  Anyone who was listening (probably damn few of them) would’ve found the narrative completely incoherent.

Well.

There won’t be any horror stories tomorrow night at McNally-Robinson.  Nossir.  I’m well prepped and I’m reading some of the most exciting passages from my supernatural thrillers, So Dark the Night and Of the Night.  Anyone who shows up is gonna enjoy themselves, guar-an-teed; they sure as hell won’t be bored.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my rehearsing…


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Lots of activity around Casa Burns of late, fascinating diversions and developments, including:

My son, Sam, finally overcame all sorts of technical glitches and released his latest cinematic effort, a short film titled “Snoop”.  It’s already garnered a good number of “hits” and positive comments from folks who’ve seen it.  I know I’m prejudiced, but I’m just amazed how well it’s framed and cut; the kid’s visual eye is nothing short of amazing.  Be sure to head over to YouTube and take in an eye-catching caper film.

Last weekend, I checked another item off my “bucket list” and participated in a sweat lodge out at the Sweetgrass Reserve.  My gratitude to Joseph Naytowhow and my wife, Sherron, for making the arrangements, and to elder Fred Paskimin for a once in a lifetime experience.  It’s going to take awhile to assimilate the power and intensity of that afternoon.  A lot of spiritual energy surging and buzzing around that cramped, sweltering interior…

A few of you have been pestering me for an update re: my “100 Book Challenge”.  All I can say is that I’m holding my own.  I just finished book #82 but I confess progress has definitely slowed over the past couple of months.  I’m going to have to pick up my game if I expect to make the cut.  Recent reads include Knockemstiff, a superb collection of short stories by Donald Ray Pollock, and The New Space Opera 2, a so-so anthology of SF tales that featured a couple of genuinely solid efforts, including “The Island” by Peter Watts, which was the high point of the book.

Spending too much time over at Jukesy, arranging playlists of strange, ambient tunes and discovering new groups to add to my personal soundtrack:  A Place to Bury Strangers, The Vandelles, The Radio Department, Hank Williams III…

Still researching my western novel, arranging my notes for the next draft, which should commence soon.  But there are distractions, including pricing out a new roof for our house (which turned 100 this year), tons of yardwork, a pressing need for all-season tires for the Toyota—

And, of course, my upcoming reading at the McNally Robinson bookstore in Saskatoon (Wednesday, October 12th).  In case you missed my previous plug, here’s the official invite, drawn up by my pal Alicia at M-R:

Hope to see you there.

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What are your goals as a writer, as a creative person?

This question has been much on my mind for the past while.  I’ve been accused of being an “elitist” and what have you because I insist that if you write for the purpose of making money, seeking fame and fortune, you are little more than a whore.  I have also been pretty clear that I have no interest in pursuing some big, fat publishing contract, nor do I give a tinker’s damn whether you’ve won a Hugo, an Edgar or the fucking Nobel Prize for that matter.  Baubles and trinkets.  Bullion and bullshit.

Kids, I’ve been offered the chance to write franchise novels (“Star Wars” or “Star Trek”) and told the agent involved to shove it.  As far as I’m concerned, you do something like that, “sharecrop” someone else’s universe, you are off the artistic roll call.  (Thanks, Bill, couldn’t have said it better myself.)

I don’t go to conventions, suck up to editors, try to flog my work to them like a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman.

I don’t shill myself by teaching writing workshops—such ventures help spread the abhorrent lie that good writers can be stamped out like fucking cookies.  I’ve written about that in more detail here (the more delicate among you may have to avert your eyes at certain points in the essay).

Okay, so that’s what I don’t want…but what is my greatest aspiration as a writer?

To be the best.  To push myself to the limit and produce work that breaks new ground, written in language so finely wrought it’s like reading through a score by one of the great classical musicians.  Note perfect.  I want to be held up there with the finest authors in the world and not be found wanting.

I have no interest in being average.  A “decent” writer.  Ugh.  Better to be forgotten than instantly forgettable, which pretty much sums up most of the books being released these days.

Because I have chosen to go the indie route, I have automatically rendered my writing suspect in many people’s eyes.  If I’m acting as my own publisher and printer that must mean my stuff is no good, rejected by mainstream places because it fails to meet their exalted standards.  Which automatically begs the question:  have you been in a book store recently, seen the kind of shit the traditional publishers are spewing out like a drunk’s partially digested lunch?

I expend an incredible amount of time and effort revising and polishing my work—my novel So Dark the Night took over three years to write (not including the research that preceded it).  And I’m a full time writer.  Imagine that.  Day in and day out for 3+ years.  (Shudder)  But I knew I had a wonderful book, was confident that once it was finished and released, people would love it.  And I was right.

But, again, because I’m not a self-promoter, I think I’ve hurt sales of both my novels.  I even resisted sending out review copies, partially because I knew that no matter how good the books were, how professionally executed and bound, there would still be the stigma of the indie/self-published label.  This despite a professional writing career spanning over 25 years, many publication credits, anthology appearances, critical raves.  I haven’t sent copies to some of the famous authors I’m acquainted with, seeking their praise and approbation.  There’s just something within me that balks at the notion.  I want my books discovered, not read because of some kind of viral ad campaign.

So Dark the Night and Of the Night are superb literary efforts.  They are sprinkled with genre elements (mystery, horror/dark fantasy) but they are intended for an intelligent, discerning mainstream audience.  They have enormous cross-over appeal thanks to winning characters, snappy dialogue and homages to film noir, pulp fiction, and cult cinema and TV.  Fans of Paul Auster, Jonathan Carroll, Nicholas Christopher, David Mitchell, Philip K. Dick and Jorge Luis Borges will find a lot to like in both novels.

What they won’t find is the kind of incompetent, derivative, semi-literate drivel that is prevalent both in the self-published world and, as I’ve just related, on the traditional publishing scene as well.  You wanna read the next Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown or J.A. Konrath?  I’m sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place.  I’m a real writer, boys and girls, I seek to create ART.  I want to destroy your preconceptions and offer you prose that is exciting, intoxicating and pitch perfect, right down to the placement of commas.

I want to be the best writer in the world.

There.  I’ve said it.

It’s a pipe dream, of course, there’s no such thing.  But for me, the bar is raised to the highest possible peg and I won’t lower my expectations for any market niche, slot on the bestseller list or dollar figure you can name.  My literary heroes are men and women who slaved away tirelessly, selflessly, stubbornly, refusing to conform to the whims of agents, editors or readers.  Iconoclasts and artisans, defending their work, their legacies, with the ferocity of pit bulls.  Facing penury, enduring lives of desperation, anonymity, pain and hopelessness, yet never forsaking their vision or abandoning their ideals.

With role models like that, it’s impossible to even entertain the possibility of selling out.

My idols would never forgive me.

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I’ll be reading from my two supernatural thrillers,  So Dark the Night and Of the Night, at an upcoming event at the McNally-Robinson Bookstore in Saskatoon.

The date:  Wednesday, October 12th
The time:  7:30 p.m.

Alicia Horner, the affable and hard-working Events Coordinator at McNally Robinson, has put together a promo page which provides all the relevant details.

Copies of both books will be available for purchase and, natch, I’ll be happy to sign them for you.

Don’t get to do stuff like this often enough and I miss it.  My readings are very performance oriented (so to speak); I hate a boring author/reader and feel a genuine sense of accomplishment when I’ve entertained a live crowd and won over some new fans.  Always seem to find a receptive audience whenever I read in Saskatoon—yet another reason why that city figures prominently on the list of my favorite places on Earth.

Jot “October 12th” down on your calendar (see how much advance notice I’m giving you?) and, if you’re in the neighborhood, drop by and hang out with us for awhile. And, afterward, browse the store, buy some books, keep the sputtering flame of literacy alive.

Hope to see you in October and I look forward to introducing you to a couple of terrific page-turners.

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Back from my trip to Montana and I’m ten days older, a helluva lot wiser and a great deal more appreciative of the beauty, wonder and diversity all around us.

I haven’t traveled a lot—as frequent readers of this blog know—and find the concept of leaving my home office for an extended period of time onerous.  But my two trips to the state of Montana have convinced me this mindset is not only silly but perhaps even counterproductive.  On both occasions I returned refreshed, energized and inspired…and produced some fine work as a direct result of my rambles through “Big Sky country”.

The first time was back in late Spring, 2002 and I was in pretty wretched state.  I’d just expended enormous energies completing final drafts of the two novellas that comprise my book Righteous Blood.  There is incredible darkness in those pieces, almost as if I was trying to purge myself of all the vileness and fury I’d accumulated for who knows how long.  The book was also intended to be a kind of “fuck you” to the entire horror genre, which, to my mind, took a nosedive into the toilet sometime in the mid-1990′s (sadly, it’s in even worse shape now).  I no longer wanted anything to do with the field and had zero desire to be lumped in with the losers and hacks who made their home there.  The morning we left for Great Falls, I was a burnt out case.  When we returned, a week or so later, I was a new man.

Montana had worked its magic on me.

This time around, I had the same travel partner (my father-in-law, Ken Harman) but was in far better condition, mentally and creatively.  The motivation behind our latest voyage was different too:  we were going down to Livingston and spending a week interviewing historians and curators, familiarizing ourselves with some of the settings featured in my western novel, The Last Hunt.  A research trip and I had a satchel of notes and a box of resource material to prove it.  And because some of the action takes place in Yellowstone Park, we spent one entire day viewing some of the most spectacular, mysterious and breath-stealing scenery the world has to offer.  I stood on a spot where I could see where much of the final part of the novel is set and, I gotta tell ya, kids, it gave me goosebumps.

Met a number of pretty amazing people as we rambled about the state and couldn’t believe how generous people were with their time, how friendly and forthcoming.  Lee Whittlesey, historian at the Heritage and Research Center down in Gardiner, was a wonderful host and raconteur, his knowledge of the Park extraordinary, his anecdotes and detailed answers to my questions had me scribbling furiously to keep up.  Lee, you’re a gem.

Paul Shea, the curator of the Gateway Museum in Livingston, showed me dozens of photos from the town’s early years and there were also amazing shots of Cinnabar and other local places of interest.  And he did so in an office shrouded in plastic, workmen banging and sawing away, the museum undergoing extensive renovations at the time.

Our most fortuitous encounter in Livingston was with John Fryer, a man who just might be the single most charming individual I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.  A natural, innate charm, nothing affected or manufactured.  Anyone fortunate enough to be acquainted with John knows exactly of what I speak.  We walked into John’s bookstore (“Sax & Fryer Company”) on Callender Street and knew we’d come to the right place.  A terrific selection of novels and non-fiction and the ladies employed there rang in our purchases on a cash register that was over one hundred years old.  Ken mentioned a certain classic saddle he’d just sold and John’s eyes brightened.

“Come on downstairs.”  We followed him to his basement lair where he showed us a mini-museum of saddles and western-related gear.  John and Ken chatted about the various items, both of them momentarily (and happily) cast back more than a century, men who could happily exist in less civilized times, untouched by modern technology.

Through John, we met the great western writer Richard Wheeler.  Mr. Wheeler is a national treasure, six-time winner of the Golden Spur Award; he and Elmer Kelton are the two consistently best writers the genre has produced in the past thirty years.  We spent several hours in his company and every minute of it was a treat.  I’m not much of a drinker but I raised a bourbon or two that night, I tell you.  Jim Beam Black, a truly infernal concoction.  And, another true confession, that same evening I stood eight feet from one of the five finest authors in America and didn’t know it.  After we’d said our farewells to Mr. Wheeler, the bartender signaled me over and murmured “Did you notice Jim Harrison at the end of the bar?”

I think I might have stopped breathing.  Of course I had.  I’d looked over, saw this rather hard-looking seed, and thought “Hmmmm…”  Didn’t think “Could that be Jim Harrison?”, more like “What an interesting face…”

I wanted to beat my forehead against the bar.  What a lost opportunity.  Just to wander over, hold out my hand and say “Thank you for every word you’ve ever committed to paper.”

Well.  There it is.

Livingston is a mecca for fine writers and artists of all stripes.  Harrison and Tom McGuane are regularly sighted.  Margot Kidder has a place in the hills and Walter Hill has been known to visit.  Sam Peckinpah loved it there and shot holes in the ceiling of the Murray Hotel to prove it.  “What did you do when Sam did that?” someone once asked the Murray’s long-suffering proprietor.  “Plug ‘em up and send him the bill,” was the wise, terse reply.  There’s kind of a roll call of honor in the Murray’s decidedly un-trendy bar, signed photos of some of its more celebrated patrons.  While Ken listened to a rather manic guy explain the proper way of catching and subduing a six-foot black snake, I took a wander, checked out the various black and white pictures—

And there he was.  James Crumley.  Thick, craggy face, somehow managing to simultaneously convey humor and immense sadness.  To me, Crumley is the man.  For years I dreamed of buying him a drink in a joint much like the Murray Bar, perch myself on a stool beside him and just…listen.  He told wonderful, funny stories, the locals remember him well.  Always attracted a retinue of hangers-on and sycophants when he blew into town for some good fishing and hard drinking.  Ah, Jim…

I experienced a wave of sadness looking at his picture.  Went back to the bar and ordered another bourbon, raised it in the direction of his portrait.  To your good soul

Met any number of terrific people in our travels.  We stayed in three separate RV parks in the state and ran across all kinds of interesting folks, every one of them with a story to tell.  I have no doubt that they will appear, in various guises and composites, in upcoming stories and novels; hope I can do justice to their complicated and conflicted natures.  Never encountered anyone I didn’t like, nor did I hear the lame jingoism that one frequently associates with our friends south of the border.

Montana is a western state, its citizens contrary, stubbornly independent.  They’re folks who believe in hard work, straight talk and minding your own damn business.  People who don’t think much of government at any level—local, state and most especially those vultures in Washington.  They’re tolerant of dissent and possess the sharp, practical minds of their ancestors.  I admire them for their respect for their heritage and history and thank them for the hospitality they extended to Ken and I, the fellowship we found in their company.

Hopefully it won’t be another decade before I go back.  I felt at home there and it’s taken time to re-acclimatize myself now that I’m back in Saskatchewan.  The walls of my office seem a lot closer, almost oppressive.  I miss the mountains and suspect I might have left a vital, irreplaceable part of myself at that overlook near Hell-Roaring Creek.

Author photo courtesy Ken Harman (Thanks, Cap’n!)

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Mark Miller is a guy to keep an eye on.

Right now he’s seeking funds for a horror film he’s in the process of developing…and he’s working with material vetted by one of the Grandmasters of dark fantasy, Clive Barker.

Monsieur Barker has put his stamp of approval on “The Sickness”—I get the feeling he’s acting as a mentor to Mark, recognizing him as a guy with a tremendous amount of potential.

Here’s a link to the site Mark has set up to raise funds for his movie.

You’ll see from his pitch, this lad has a lot on the ball.

Contributors receive a mench on Clive’s blog…and score valuable karmic brownie points with the Big Guy upstairs.

G’wan…drop a few bucks the kid’s way.

Show your support for a talented film-maker with a bright, shining future…

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