It can be a somber, sobering process, this kind of self-evaluation, and, inevitably, I get around to my writing.
Thirty years as a professional author and not much of a dent made. Black Dog Press, my imprint (described as a “micro-press” on my Saskatchewan business license) barely scrapes by. It’s no coincidence that I usually publish my titles in the early spring, right after the annual check from the Public Lending Rights folks arrives. It just about pays for each new release.
And let’s be honest, my books sell very modestly; outside a small coterie of readers, I am virtually unknown. I sent out something like 45 copies of my last book, Disloyal Son, to newspapers, magazines, assorted literary folk, receiving precisely three polite acknowledgements and no reviews. Not one. One mystery magazine emailed me, thanking me for sending a copy their way and offering to sell me a full-page ad that could maybe/possibly run in the same issue as the review (hint, hint). I didn’t have money for the ad and they didn’t end up publishing a review. It’s the way things work these days. Kirkus Reviews? Publishers Weekly? For the right price you can commission a four-star review and laudatory blurbs…never mind that no one has even glanced at the book in question.
Publishing is a dirty business, there’s no denying it.
And it’s hard to stay positive, to keep on keeping on, when you know the deck is stacked, the marketplace flooded with a quarter million new releases every year, a clammer of dissonant voices begging to be heard, a hellish, caterwauling chorus.
But it’s the work, that joyfulness I feel when everything is clicking, sentences and paragraphs almost being dictated to me, that’s what makes it worthwhile. As long as I’m able to put pen to paper, as long as those words don’t dry up, inspiration fleeing from me, I think I can endure almost anything.
Creation is everything to me. As soon as I’m done a project, I’m ready to move on, tackle another challenge. And that’s why I don’t spend much time mourning the poor sales of my last novel or short story collection, or grind my teeth down to the gums as I watch their rapid plummet to the bottom of Amazon’s sales rankings. Those four-dollar royalty checks? Hey, bring ’em on.
Just…keep the words coming. In good times and bad. Darkness and light. Ecstasy and despair.
Anything but that screaming silence.
Yesterday I was feeling completely listless and dull-witted. Couldn’t work up the energy to do much of anything.
Then I remembered a couple of photos Sherron sent me. Sometimes, in the morning light, our kitchen walls get these really cool shadows and patterns projected onto them; my visually-oriented wife noticed this pair and took some shots with her cell phone.
I called up the photos, placed them side-by-side on my computer screen, stared at them for about thirty seconds.
Then I grabbed my blue Hilroy exercise book…and started scribbling. No thought, no pre-planning, just went for it.
It’s an old trick…worked for the surrealists and, by God, it worked for me.
Here’s the story, accompanied by the images that inspired it:
* * * *
The Test Subject
ALL RIGHT, TERRY, YOU KNOW THE ROUTINE. WE NEED YOU TO TAKE US THROUGH WHAT YOU’RE EXPERIENCING AND DESCRIBE—
It’s hard…I don’t…there aren’t any…
COME ON, YOU HAVE TO DO BETTER THAN THAT. WE NEED SENSATIONS, COLORS. PAINT US A PICTURE.
(Laughter) You don’t…it isn’t like that. God, I wish I could explain, show you…but there’s no (indecipherable), no, ahhhh, common reference points.
ARE YOU DISORIENTED, DO YOU—
What? Did you say ‘distortion’? Everything’s distorted. It’s like…like…
…this kaleidoscope…constant movement…twisting and spiraling…
ARE YOU FEELING NAUSEOUS?
I feel—oh, Jesus! Jesus! Did you see that? It just…wow…this bolt of pure blue light…zipped right past me and it—I swear it smelled like cinnamon.
THAT’S WHAT WE WANT TO HEAR! YOU NEED TO DESCRIBE THE EFFECTS, HOW THIS THING MANIFESTS ITSELF. TERRY? TERRY, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?
I know. I see what you’re…but it’s really got on top of me and…and…it’s just too…and then everything just changes, like that! Did you see it? Like the whole universe suddenly switched polarities and—and flowed in the opposite direction. Whoa, trippy. And there’s something…I see something…
I dunno…a shape…presence…now it’s up there, by the ceiling, sort of floating…
POINT. SHOW US WHERE YOU MEAN.
There. It keeps shifting, flowing, like I said. I can’t quite…it blends in with these other blob things…they kind of swirl and mesh…yeah…swirl and mesh…mesh into a mess…
WHAT ELSE? DO YOU GET A SENSE OF ANY—
–someone turn up the heat? It’s freezing in here.
THE TEMPERATURE IS KEPT AT A CONSTANT 24 DEGREES CELSIUS.
I’m telling you—fuck! That time it zoomed right past me. This bright-colored blur…I could’ve reached out and—
TELL US WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE. GODDAMNIT, TERRY—
It’s made of light and…uhhh…wow! Oh, wow…there it is. Hovering, just in front of me. Holy shit, I think it’s looking at me—
EASY, TERRY, COME ON NOW. YOU’RE TRIPPING, REMEMBER? IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD. SO GET A GRIP—
It’s staring at me, man. Studying me. I’ve never…I’ve seen little green men before but…this thing knows…
KNOWS? WHAT DO YOU—
–knows I’m here and it’s curious too. Wondering who I am, what I’m doing. This is its backyard and I’m trespassing on…
–ONLY AN HALLUCINATION—
Bullshit! Bullshit! There’s something in here and it isn’t just the fucking drug. It sees me. It sees me and I want out. Get me out of this! Somebody! I need to–
Gimme the fucking antidote! I want to (indecipherable). This is fucked, this is totally—
AT THE REQUEST OF THE TEST SUBJECT WE ARE DISCONTINUING THE SESSION AND—
What the fuck are you? What do you want from me? Keep away from me—
IT’S OKAY, TERRY, WE’RE COMING IN. BOB AND ANGELA ARE RIGHT OUTSIDE AND THEY’LL—
Oh, Jesus, oh, Jesus– (Heavy breathing, panting)
It’s coming, it’s—ahhhhh…Christ, it’s got me…help me…it’s–(indecipherable).
(Shouts of alarm, a woman screams)
BOB? ANGIE? SECURITY! SECURITY! WE HAVE AN EMERGENCY SITUATION UP HERE AND WE NEED A COMPLETE LOCKDOWN, REPEAT—WHAT? WHO’S THAT? WHO’S THERE? IS SOMEONE OUT THERE? HELLO? HELLO?
Don’t start thinking about the last pass you made through the new release section of ___________ (fill in the blank with your favourite box store).
Shelves of books by the likes of Tess Gerritsen, Harlan Coben, James Patterson.
Tepid mysteries and formulaic thrillers. No music to the prose, no originality, nothing to recommend them except their elementary school reading level. Forgettable and digestible; like fast food, only not nearly as good for you.
Comparisons are inevitable but you can’t start placing the intelligent, literate work you do alongside such mindless pap. That way lies madness. It will only inspire a blind, incoherent fury toward the “average reader”, which, these days, appears to be a euphemism for “hideously in-bred moron with the reasoning capacity of a plasmodial slimeworm” (see? it’s started already!).
A couple hundred thousand books published every year, God knows how many cable channels, the internet, social networking, “sexting”…it’s pretty hard for anyone to get noticed these days, at least for the right reasons. Behave badly, on the other hand, and the whole world seems to lap it up. Check out the latest wardrobe malfunction or celebrity meltdown; share it, like it, plug another quarter into some asshole’s ad revenue stream.
After all, it’s essential to keep up with the latest trends, highlighted by hashtags like #Kardashianweightgain or #femaleViagra. Absorbing the world in 140-character bites, possessing the attention span of a Jack Russell terrier.
Let’s face it, you’re not the kind of author who appeals to that sort. No media stroking or flame wars for you, right? You’d rather folks discover your work on their own, rather than hawking it about like an old style newspaper vendor. Or a whore. You’d like to believe there are still smart readers out there, looking for original, daring fiction. Looking for you.
But you’re fifty years old now, heading into the autumn of your life. You’ve got ten solid books to your credit, given everything you’ve got to Literature…and part of you is starting to seriously wonder about those discerning, thoughtful readers. If they really exist, why aren’t more of them finding you and singing your praises? Spreading the word. Providing for your retirement.
Maybe they don’t exist. Deep breath. Maybe the internet and connectivity has rewired brains to the extent that light entertainment and diversions are all people can handle these days. Dark, depressing visions like yours are out—bring on the mind candy! It explains the proliferation of rom-coms and the continued existence of “talents” like E.L. James, Jennifer Anniston and James Cameron.
Suddenly, it’s become clear to me. It’s the day after the zombie apocalypse.
Cripes, what a depressing post.
I warned you not to go there, didn’t I? And I’ll bet it’ll take a lot more than a Marx Brothers flick or a few old Looney Tunes cartoons to shake you out of it this time…
I’m a superstitious sod, rarely discussing works-in-progress, except obliquely (even with my wife). If I jabber about a book or story too much, part of me believes I’ll somehow “jinx” things and said offering will wither and die on the vine. So I play things close to the vest, wait until the project has achieved a highly polished state before I finally heave a sigh of relief and officially announce that something new is on the way.
And so it is with my latest novel, Disloyal Son.
Subtitle: A False Memoir.
This one took my wife by surprise. I spoke of it only in generalities, alluding to some of the history and background my research was turning up. When I finally handed her a finished draft the end of June (2014), she had a vague notion that the book had something to do with my father, the fibs he told us, family stories and rumors we heard as children about the mysterious deaths of two of his brothers…
But I think it’s safe to say Sherron was shocked when she opened the manuscript and discovered…a mystery novel. It took her awhile to adjust her thinking; she expected something much more personal and intimate, along the lines of my radio play “The First Room” (broadcast on CBC Radio some years ago).
The problem with treating the book as a memoir is that at some point I would have to make an appearance—and, frankly, I can’t think of a less interesting person to incorporate into my work. (In that sense, I differ from many writers I can name but, soft, let us move on from that contentious point…)
Nope, it was my determination right from the beginning to approach my father’s shameless falsehoods, his brothers’ deaths, as a fiction writer would, solving those aforementioned ancient mysteries with the tools and techniques of a storyteller. The central character is an author about my age but he’s more of an alter ego than a stand-in; a doppelganger living a parallel life, a “might have been”.
The whole book is a gigantic “what if?”.
But it’s something else too…because there are little truths and facts scattered throughout, bits of family lore my mother and sisters will get but no one else will. Despite my efforts, there’s perhaps more of me in this book than I intended.
What Disloyal Son is really about is the toxic effect secrets and sins can have on a family, people generations removed from the actual events but still feeling the ripples. The novel is a work of fiction but I think many out there will understand that the themes it addresses have a great deal of relevance to those who live in the shadow of childhood trauma or whose lives have been damaged by a legacy of lies and deceit.
Terrible things go on behind closed doors, many unpunished crimes, including assault, rape, even murder. Whispered about at family gatherings but, for the most part, swept under the carpet. Scarcely alluded to but not forgotten.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds and that’s why the narrator/central character of Disloyal Son is so determined, despite his family’s opposition, to deal with their dark past and uncover the truth about events that took place nearly four decades ago. His efforts lead him deeper and deeper, until he realizes there are actual skeletons in the family closet, the reality far grimmer than he imagined.
That’s all I’m prepared to say about the story line, at least for the moment—I really hate spoilers.
So…a “false memoir”.
First it was dark fantasy, horror, science fiction, poetry, mainstream literary, a tale set in the Old West…and now this. How the hell am I supposed to draw any kind of readership if I keep shedding skin like a fat snake? No wonder editors and agents shy away from me and even long time fans scratch their heads in confusion and dismay.
No apologies forthcoming from this end. Not a chance. Disloyal Son is a page-turner, a crime novel with the pacing of an Elmore Leonard yarn. Unputdownable. Featuring well-drawn characters, sudden twists and turns and a resolution you absolutely will not see coming. I can’t tell you how pleased I am with the way it turned out—talk about exceeding expectations.
Currently, Sherron is in the process of proofing the manuscript and we should be getting the cover and text files set by the first of April. May Day, 2015 is still our intended release date. I’ve done a couple of mockups for the cover design, which I’ll be passing on to my cover guy, the irreplaceable Chris Kent. And we’re welcoming aboard a new interior layout person, Jana Rade, who runs Impact Studios and comes with stellar recommendations. Hoping for a very smooth and glitch-free production this time around. C’mon, team!
I’ll be “leaking” the cover in mid-April and, meanwhile, devising a much more aggressive advertising and promotional campaign for Disloyal Son. Plugging my books has always been a problem for me—basically, once a book is done I seem to lose interest in it and the only thing I can think about is starting a NEW project, something to get the creative juices flowing again. But my writing deserves better than that and one of my resolutions this year was to devote more time and effort to raising my profile, letting people know I’ve got ten terrific books in print and that over the past thirty years as a professional author I have produced an intelligent and original body of work in a variety of genres. A literary therianthrope.
Watch for my latest offering, Disloyal Son, in a few short months.
It’s gonna rock your world.
Regular visitors to this blog know that these days I rarely submit my work to outside publications (why should I when I can publish anything I want either here or through my imprint Black Dog Press?).
But this year I came up with a tale that was so good, I really wanted to see it featured in a respected magazine, one boasting a literate readership. So, in March, with some trepidation, I submitted “Restitution” to two of Canada’s premiere literary publications, The Malahat Review and Descant.
TMR got back to me last month with a form rejection slip upon which some arsehole editor had scrawled “Cool concept, try us again!”. You wanna know why CanLit sucks, look no further. The vast majority of editors in this country belong in a fucking head injury ward. And then yesterday, after almost nine months, I hear from Descant magazine. It was the proverbial good news/bad news scenario: my story had successfully navigated the vetting process but, unfortunately, Descant is closing its doors after its next issue (Winter, 2014).
Okay, that does it. Rather than wait around another year to see this fine tale in print, I’m posting it here and over on my Scribd page. To hell with it. “Restitution” is the best story from 0-2000 words you’re going to read this year. You don’t believe me? Fine, have a look for yourself. Afterward, I’ll be waiting around for your fulsome apologies:
Yesterday was my birthday so, devious creep that I am, I leaked a cover shot of my next book to a few select friends and then, later that day, allowed Sherron to post it on my Facebook page.
So, now that the cat’s out of the bag and clawing up the furniture, here’s Chris Kent’s stunning cover for Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination. Chris has been part of the creative team since So Dark the Night and his covers always manage to capture the essence of the book in question.
Is this his best one yet? Drop me a note with your opinion.
In the meantime, kids, feast your eyes on this (click on image to enlarge):
Release date: November 20, 2014
In the week since I’ve wrapped up work on Sex, I’ve been in kind of a “transition” phase, as I prepare for another edit of my novel-in-progress.
I couldn’t just dive back into the novel after spending several weeks tinkering with a batch of really dark, harrowing short stories—I needed a break, a way to ease into it.
I go through these periods every so often and it’s during these times that I create some of the strange short films and ambient musical pieces that you’ll find under my “Films/Music” tab. It’s also when I’ll retreat to my cold, damp basement and slap some acrylic paint on canvas for a few days. Experimenting. Playing.
And I’m prone to sudden attacks of poetry, as well.
Which is what happened this time around.
For the past 7-10 days there’s been a lot of scribbling going on around here and much of it centers around a suite of stanzas I’ve put together under the title “Sixteen Rites of Deconditioning”.
For at least fifteen years I’ve kept a couple of notebooks devoted to…I’m not sure what you’d call it. Automatic writing? Free associations? Visions?
When I’m in a certain mindset I feel a compulsion to scrawl words, disjointed sentences, dream sequences, snippets of verse. The spell only lasts a few hours, a day at the most, but I’m often surprised by what these sessions produce. Recently I decided to go through both notebooks and write down certain key words or lines or themes that stood out. Once I assembled a roster of these bits, I began to shape them, dividing them up, juxtaposing certain parts, creating fascinating fusions, collisions and cross-fertilizations.
I was delighted with the end result and just posted “Sixteen Rites of Deconditioning” on my Scribd page–I encourage you to zip over there and cast you eyes over a mind-blowing poem, by far the longest and most complex I’ve written to date.
I welcome your comments and reactions—the poem is certainly subject to a variety of interpretations and I’m interested by how people experience “Sixteen Rites”, if it strikes any familiar chords.
Am I plugged in to the zeitgeist…or spending far too much time alone in my office?
Let me know what you think.