You’ll find my list of favourite films over at my blog, Cinema Arete.
Read slightly more non-fiction than fiction last year, a bit of a worrying trend. I’ve really cut back on my genre fiction in the past while; I’ve found the suspension of disbelief rarely works for me any more. The last horror novel I read, by Peter Straub, struck me as completely implausible and I barely finished it.
More and more, I’m looking for quality reads, books that are innovative, literate and unique.
And, more and more, contemporary fiction just doesn’t meet that criteria.
* * * *
Best Books Read in 2016
Fortune Smiles (Stories) by Adam Johnson
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
The Execution by Hugo Wilcken
The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo
The Heavenly Bible by Donald Ray Pollock
Today I Wrote Nothing (Stories) by Daniil Kharms
Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse
The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken
The Adulterous Woman (Stories) by Albert Camus
Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
Without by Donald Hall
Felicity by Mary Oliver
Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life by James Hawes
Ghost Wars: Secret History of CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden by Steve Coll
Contrary Notions by Michael Parenti
When the Facts Change by Tony Judt
Disaster Capitalism by Antony Lowenstein
Young Orson: The Years of Luck & Genius by Patrick McGilligan
We Learn Nothing (Essays) by Tim Kreider
Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum
Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk
The Idea of Communism by Tariq Ali
Goebbels: A Biography by Peter Longerich
My Life & Travels by Wilfred Thesiger
Hogs Wild (Essays) by Ian Frazier
Endless processions of driverless cars.
Delivering their contents to automated houses.
Under the constant scrutiny of cameras, overhead drones.
Smart appliances reporting preferences, behavior, patterns; mined for data, narcing to their corporate masters.
Election night: voting by remote control, hardly bothering to check the results.
Keeping your head down, mouth shut.
Addicted to livestreaming porn sites.
Disgusted by the state of affairs but powerless to effect any change.
Buying stupid trinkets to fill the void.
Drugs when nothing else works.
An epidemic of suicide in your age bracket.
Desperately lonely and neurotic, verging on anti-social.
In your solitary rooms, secured by triple locks.
Talking to yourself and the listening walls.
Waiting for the knock on your door.
© Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
For not the first time (and certainly not the last), I find myself apologizing for the lengthy interval between blog posts.
But, as I’ve pointed out previously, when I’m deeply immersed in a project I don’t have the time or energy to blog—so when these long silences (inevitably) crop up, I think you can safely assume I’m up to something.
In this instance, two short stories have been devouring my waking hours. One, “The Grey Men”, is a mystery/suspense tale clocking in at 1900 words, and “Magic Man”, the one I’m just wrapping up, is 8700 words (33 pages) long.
Upon its completion “The Grey Men” struck me as more accessible and genre specific than my usual efforts, so I did something very out of character and actually submitted it to a magazine for consideration. Longtime readers know I swore off that practice ages ago and only rarely offer my short fiction to publications or writing competitions. Why bother with extended (interminable) response times and form rejections when I can just go ahead and release my work either here or over on Scribd? But, I dunno, “The Grey Men” is a solid, convincing story and maybe just this once a perceptive editor will see its merits and snap it up. I’ll let you know.
I tackled “Magic Man”, in all honesty, because I was feeling quite smug and confident after completing “The Grey Men”. I should have known better.
The first draft of “Magic Man” was written back in 1984. I kid you not. It was one of the tales that signalled a shift from narratives centred around myself, my own life experiences, to venturing out into unexplored waters, creating entirely fictional worlds and characters. For that reason, I’ve always had a rather fond view of “Magic Man”, never completely forgot about it. And so, as an exercise, I pulled the one, typed copy of “Magic Man” out of my archives and set to work.
It was torture. First of all, I had to tap in the story, 4-5000 words of it, and that was an excruciatingly slow process because I couldn’t help correcting and doing adjustments as I went along, which really was incredibly stupid and stretched the process out. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Just type the fucking thing in, Cliff, and then start editing. Nope. Finally, got the entire draft on computer…and that’s when it really got difficult.
Obviously, I’m a much better writer now than I was thirty-one years ago. That guy back in 1984, he was still basically a rookie, a kid learning the ropes. So “Magic Man” needed work, lots and lots and lots of work. At the same time, however, I wanted to show respect to the kid, the one I remembered slaving away on this story, really excited about it because he knew it was a step, more like a lurching, uncertain stumble, in a new and different direction. I wanted to recognize that effort, the courage it took to complete “Magic Man”, and so I was also determined to preserve as much of the spirit of the original as possible.
Finally, two weeks later, it’s almost done. Sherron is downstairs reading the copy of “Magic Man” I printed last night. I didn’t tell her (never do) what I’ve been up to so she’s in for a treat. She’ll remember this story very well: after all, it’s one of the first I ever dedicated to her.
If “The Grey Men” falls into the mystery/suspense category, “Magic Man” is a bit more problematic. There are elements of dark/urban fantasy, I suppose, but for the most part it’s a mainstream effort. Realistic setting and scenario. Which will likely make it next to impossible to sell or market the bloody thing. The extended length will factor against it as well. In the old days, I might have sent it to magazines like Cemetery Dance or Midnight Graffiti, but the latter no longer exists and the former has been closed to submissions for ages. I might release the tale as a Kindle “single”, sell it for 99 cents a download, but I’m not sure what that would achieve. I’m very happy with how “Magic Man” turned out and would like to see it presented to readers in an attractive, respected venue.
So let me throw it out there: anybody know of a decent-sized anthology or magazine willing to look at an 8700-word story featuring a “touch of strange”? If so, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
400 blog posts? Can that possibly be right? Even with all the long gaps, the periods of time when I’ve completely ignored and shunned Beautiful Desolation?
Amazing. Inconceivable. I think that averages out to 40-45 blog posts a year or around one a week. Not bad for a full-time workaholic author.
Looking back over the years it’s interesting to note the changes in tone and content. I confess I was a very, very angry man when I first started posting on Beautiful Desolation eight-and-a-half years ago—check out a few of those early blog posts and you’ll see what I mean. I was fed up with money-hungry, corporate publishers and their idiotic editors, and the greedy literary agents colluding with them to destroy any chance of interesting, innovative authors getting into print. The publishing biz, especially after the big, multi-national takeovers in the 1980s (something else to thank Ronnie Raygun for), has systemically dummied down the marketplace to the extent that sub-literate, amateur purveyors of fan fiction have a better chance getting their work in book stores and sales racks than the next Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace. Disgusting, innit? My fury with that situation finally boiled over when a draft of my first novel, So Dark the Night, was rejected by an editor who kept me waiting over a year before delivering the bad news. I penned a very public “fuck off” letter to the industry, a portion of which which was reprinted in “GalleyCat“, an on-line site devoted (mainly) to the New York publishing scene. Folks who responded to my expletive-filled tirade warned me that I’d burned all my bridges and “would never work in this town again”.
But by that point I was beyond caring. I had recently discovered print-on-demand (POD) publishing and immediately recognized that printing had finally caught up with the times and authors now had a relatively inexpensive and efficient way of releasing their own work without involving editors and agents or gate-keepers of any kind. I had self-published my first book, Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination in 1990, but those were the bad, old days of offset printing and all the horrors associated with that. Print-on-demand simplified and streamlined the process…and it also didn’t encumber you with 500 or 1,000 copies of your book to store and inventory (with POD there are no minimum print runs).
Thanks to print-on-demand, my wee imprint, Black Dog Press, was reborn, rejuvenated…and I was a much happier camper.
And so the rants here came a lot less frequently—though topics like the amateurization of the arts and National Novel Writing Month always seem to spark more vitriol—and I settled down, embracing the independent (indie) writing world, feeling empowered and artistically fulfilled, knowing that my work was available to the reading public exactly the way I envisioned it. No middlemen, no interference.
Coming up on ten (10) books later, and I keep doing my thing, making no apologies, kickin’ against the pricks. Older, greyer, a little wiser, a “grand old man” (at 52) of self-publishing/indie writing. Still refusing to pay obeisance to fashions and trends, still refusing to whore my talent, writing what I want to write. Power to the people, motherfuckers!
I’ve got a catalog of excellent books and every single one of them is unique and original and highly literate.
After thirty years as a professional author, I’ve seen ’em come and go but, hey, here I am, still standing, still creating and publishing intelligent, highly crafted prose while many one-hit wonders and flashes-in-the-pan have slipped into obscurity or disappeared altogether. Where are they now?
I’m a “neglected” author, I’m a “cult” author, operating on the fringe, below the radar, working without the slightest desire for fame or monetary reward.
But the main thing is I’m working, staying relevant, productive, thematically and stylistically daring. Consumed by the act of creation.
It will be interesting to read blog post #500 in a couple years’ time.
I wonder how much will have changed, with my writing, the state of the world.
In either case, I can only hope (and pray) it’s for the better.
- Sherron finished “Magic Man” a few minutes after I completed this post and loved it. Just for the record…
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.