That nasty bout of sciatica (see: previous posts) threw off my summer schedule and I’ve been playing catch-up ever since. Summertime (for whatever reason) is the season when I usually bear down; most of the major projects I’ve undertaken in the past decade were initiated from June-August. Who can figure these things? You’d think I’d be more creative and productive during our infamously long Canadian winters but that just isn’t the case. When the days heat up, so do I.
We’ve managed a fair amount of traveling, as you can tell from the accompanying pictures.
A trip to the sand hills (west side of the province, stretching from Leader, almost down to Swift Current) and we just got back from a few days at Waskesiu Lake (Prince Albert National Park) , hanging out with some people very dear to our hearts. Two very different ecosystems—we’re blessed with a variety of them in this big, tall province of ours and Sherron and I are determined to visit as many as we can. I’d really like to get a good look at the huge sand dunes on the south side of Lake Athabasca but that’s way up in the boonies, inaccessible to those whose wallets are on the thin side. I’m drawn to desert climes—there has to be a reason why three of the world’s major religions have their origins in the dry, pitiless environs of the Middle East. Something about a wasteland, something to do with privation, life/existence whittled down to the bare minimum.
While I was prostrate with back pain there wasn’t a whole lot I could manage. I either dozed (I was on quite a few pain killers), watched Adult Swim ‘toons (“Rick & Morty” was a favorite distraction) on a borrowed iPad or roughed out storyboards for a couple of film projects I’ve been pondering for at least ten years. If I had to pick one thing to slot in at the top of my “bucket list”, it would be writing and directing a full-length, independently produced movie. Both of my scenarios could be shot on a shoestring here in Saskatchewan and neither would be over 70 minutes long. If an hour and change was good enough for Val Lewton, it’s good enough for me.
I won’t go into detail, but one of them is intended as an homage to German “Expressionist” films of the 1920s and the other is an end-of-the-world saga that’s also a nod to weird, obscure 1970s flix like Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” and Monte Hellman’s “The Shooting”.
But I felt it was important to at least get them down on paper so once I was able to sit at my desk again, I typed up my notes and concocted two film “treatments” (30 pages each) that summarized the plots and major characters. Done.
Now I find myself in a strange, unfamiliar place, at least as far as I’m concerned:
I have no pending projects, no looming deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise.
My desk is clear.
I can’t recall this happening before. Now what do I do? Aye, that’s the question…and over the coming weeks I’m going to be feeding a lot of ideas and odd notions into the ol’ hopper. Possible stories, short films, visual projects (collages, etc.). I have no inkling of what I’m going to tackle next, not the slightest clue. That’s exciting. And terrifying. Mostly terrifying. How does a workaholic keep from going absolutely bonkers when he has nothing to engage him? Well, if you’re Sherlock Holmes, you might resort to a seven per cent solution of cocaine. That’s not to my taste but the thought of just sitting around, doodling, allowing my mind to wander holds little appeal either (God knows where it might meander off to). So I think for the time being I’ll be doing what I can to recharge my mental batteries by reading challenging books, watching good movies, feeding my imagination as many words and images as I can. Keeping it occupied, satisfying its insatiable curiosity.
I’m hoping the anxiety I experience as I anticipate the days ahead will fade. It’s important to keep reassuring myself this is not a writing block, this is a fallow period following eighteen months of back-breaking labor on, count ’em, three major projects (including a tribute book I compiled for Sherron in honor of her 50th birthday in June). No matter what I undertake—a painting, a film, a poem—it will be a creative endeavour, an expression of my spirit. I must have faith that this brief pause is some sort of object lesson; perhaps it will inspire some humility (wouldn’t that be nice?) or lead to a period of honest, unfiltered reflection. All the masks and pretensions stripped away, a ruthless appraisal of who I am and what I have or haven’t achieved.
If I’m fortunate I’ll come away with a clearer understanding of my purpose, the reason I’m here . ‘Cause Mr. Dylan is right: “It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord/but we all gotta serve somebody”.
Speaking of whom, it’s high time I had a few words with the Boss, got some new marching orders. A whole different job description might be in order.
Just pray I don’t get the sack…
(Click on images to enlarge)
Awhile back, I exchanged some e-mails with my colleague Andrez Bergen, both of us bemoaning the sorry state of the publishing biz. Andrez is a superb writer, his novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat a stunning blend of Phil Dick at his best and “literary noir”—if you haven’t read it, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Which is kind of the point of this post.
In one of my final missives I joked to Andrez that I was going to start an association called The Neglected Authors Alliance (NAA), and that the two of us would be charter members. Over the ensuing weeks, the idea kind of stuck with me and sometimes, as I passed my bookshelves, I’d take note of an author or two who weren’t household names, who had either slipped into obscurity or had never been widely read in the first place. I started putting together a roster; the living and the dead.
It was a depressing task; once I saw the sheer amount of raw talent represented, I felt sick. If these guys and gals couldn’t garner the rewards and praise and posterity to which they’re entitled, what chance do I have? Thirty years I’ve been putting pen to paper and my literary profile isn’t exactly where I want it to be (he says, choosing his words with extreme care).
And so, in tribute to Andrew and some other very fine scribes who deserve(d) far, far better from fickle readers and negligent publishers, I would like to recommend to you the following authors who have labored selflessly and courageously to produce innovative, literate prose, and who I am honored to add to the rolls of our oddball “society”:
Paul Di Filippo
Abraham Rodriguez, Jr.
Steve Rasnic Tem
Past (Honorary) Members:
Louis Ferdinand Celine
Adolfo Bioy Cesares
Notice to any authors on my list who come across this post: drop me a line if you’d like to have your own, official NAA button, with all the perqs and benefits that implies.
And, in the meantime, don’t give up, don’t stop producing great work, refuse to cede the field to the hacks, “share-croppers” and pornographers plying their trade today.
We need you.
The barbarians are at the gate…
Photo by Sherron Burns
After the Robbery *
My fence keeps me safe
Yours keeps me out
His fence is broken
Hers like a fortress
Some build a barrier of guns
Others leave a gate
Theirs is but a daisy chain
(God preserve such trusting souls)
* This past week, two individuals used a pretext to gain admission to our home and then stole from us. Initially, I was possessed by feelings of betrayal and rage…but, finally, a sense of equanimity and calm is returning. Although I think this bit of verse reveals some on-going (and longstanding) misgivings regarding my fellow human beings.
You know that’s always the case. When I’m hard at work, the last thing I think about is composing another blog entry. Don’t get me wrong, you folks are great, love hanging out with you, but writing, the creative act…well, that’s my lifeblood. My raison d’être.
This time, yes, there’s been creativity, a new short story…but, in all honesty, I’ve been devoting most of my time and energy to promoting Disloyal Son. With the hundreds, thousands of books being released every month, how do I draw attention to a solid, literate novel that anybody with two neurons to rub together will love? How do I compete with shapeshifter erotica and zombie porn and glorified fan fiction? Well, first of all, I send out review copies. Lots of review copies. To the major newspapers, mystery magazines, selected bookstores. Along with promo material and fliers that we agonize over, striving to come up with the most enticing wording. Again, trying to separate this book from the herd. The dung pile.
Good God, there are a lot of terrible books out there. Not just “self-published” either. The traditional publishers apparently believe the vast majority of contemporary readers (especially women) have the I.Q. of brain-damaged marsupials. If you’re looking for a quality book to read this summer, good luck. The trads no longer have any interest in cultivating authors, helping them find their voice and develop as artists. They’re staffed by corporate drones who merely seek “product”, mass market releases—swiftly excreted, endlessly repeated. Passionless, derivative, facile, inept.
You want to know the difference between my approach to writing, as opposed to just about everyone else’s? I care. I respect language, the traditions and legacy of literature. I treasure a well-constructed sentence and expend enormous efforts honing and shaping my work. I’m a freak when it comes to editing—meticulous to the point of, well, insanity. While many of my colleagues seem content with one or two drafts, getting their slop out as soon as possible, I drag out the process of creation to the extent that completing a short story takes weeks and a novel like So Dark the Night required over three years before I was finally satisfied and released it. And that was working on it full time, every single day.
Writing is not a craft to me, it’s an art. There’s a difference. A big difference. Most scribblers can’t make that leap. I can. Every single one of my books is intelligent, challenging, innovative; none conform to expectations or fall back on formula. I try to get that across to readers, reviewers but it’s hard. They see that Black Dog Press is my imprint and right away start thinking “this is more self-published crap”. Dismissing me out of hand. Never giving me a fair shot.
I defy anyone to read the first 5-10 pages of one of my books, choose whichever you like, and then stop. By that point it will no longer be a question of the origins of the book, the circumstances of its publication—you’ll be too caught up in a great read. Of that, I am 100% certain.
Reviewers have written about the element of surprise in my books and stories and I think that’s key. When you’re reading one of my tales you have no idea how it’s going to end or what’s coming next. I love pulling the rug out from under you, leaving you in a whimpering heap. Never saw that coming, did you?
That quality is very much in evidence in Disloyal Son. It’s a mystery, within a mystery (and then some). The truth revealed in bleeding layers. If you give it a chance, it will be the best book you read this summer, maybe this year. And I don’t need to buy a four-star Kirkus review in order to know that.
As you can see, the proof of Disloyal Son arrived and, once it was approved, I placed a big order for friends, family and a small but rabid posse of readers/freaks who have followed my jagged career arc for many a year.
Good news, folks: the books should arrive in about ten days, if Lightning Source stays true to form. You can reserve your copy now…and, of course, I’m only happy to sign it for you.
Each book costs $19.00 (USA/Canada)—Shipping: $12.00 (Canada); USA $9.00 (Surface) $11.00 (Airmail)
Happy days around Casa Burns. Disloyal Son is in the house…
Celebrated putting the final touches on my new crime/mystery novel Disloyal Son last night and am definitely feeling the effects this morning. I’d swear there are a couple of mice playing a spirited game of ping-pong just behind my eyes.
Ah, but it was worth it. Killed most of a bottle of a reasonably priced, single-malt scotch (McClelland), listened to music, had a great supper and a long, frank discussion afterward with two longtime friends. Apropos my book, it was all about family secrets, unacknowledged sins of the past. Then I opened my binder and read an excerpt from Disloyal Son, just the first four pages, but was encouraged by the feedback. Think I’ve got a winner there…
Some unexpected news this morning: my short story collection Exceptions & Deceptions was shortlisted for a 2014 ReLit Independent Press Award. It didn’t win but it’s the second year in a row one of my books made the roster. This despite the fact that “self-published” books are technically not eligible for consideration. Now how ’bout that? My only quibble, I wish the administrators of the ReLits would contact authors and let them know they were included on the list. I found out purely by accident.
In the coming days/weeks we’ll be moving into production mode re: Disloyal Son, the interior (text) and cover files prepped and finalized for submission to Lightning Source. Still clinging to that May 1st release date.
Are you ready for Disloyal Son?
And, please, help me out, won’t you? Let’s see if we can generate some real buzz around this book. It’s a thrilling read and deserves the widest possible readership. Tell friends and fellow bibliophiles, let folks know there are still good books out there…and still a few authors with a real appreciation of literature’s illustrious legacy, and who possess the courage and desire to contribute works of originality and grace to the eternal canon.
“A novelist is like God in the universe, present everywhere but visible nowhere.”
That kind of longevity, in any vocation, is pretty rare, but when it comes to the arts? Writing? Are you kidding? It either shows tremendous faith, an overweening ego…or the simple acknowledgement that there’s nothing else I’m any good at. Or all of the above.
Over the past three decades, I’ve witnessed a lot of changes in terms of technology, trends, the way the publishing business is run. Hell, I’m so old, I can recall a time when it wasn’t embarrassing to call yourself a horror writer and John Updike and Ray Carver represented the high bar in terms of American literature. Jesus, where’s my cane and adult diapers?
In that interval, I’ve seen ’em come and I’ve seen ’em go. One-hit wonders, lighting up the sky like a rogue comet and then exploding, leaving not the slightest trace of their passing. The darlings of the critics and cultural poobahs, earnest scribblers telling their very personal stories of suffering and courage and redemption, seeking applause and acclamation the way a junkie probes for a fresh vein. Their offerings winning all the literary prizes, earning highly coveted media attention, getting their names in lights. Hooray!
Except…where are they now?
I won’t name names (that would be cruel) but how many highly touted scribblers have popped up during my 30-year tenure, sucked up some attention (and sometimes a considerable amount of money) and then faded away? Check out the prize lists since 1985—Pulitzers and Bookers and GGs and Gillers, right down to the regional level: how many of those names are still prominent today, still producing quality work?
Exactly. I’d have to use a quantum calculator to determine the number of “bold new talents” and “exciting voices” that have come down the pike in my professional lifetime. It’s an annual rite, like checking to see if Wiarton Willy can spot his shadow. Never mind that the vast majority of the “stories” these bright, young things are telling are very much their own: fictionalized accounts of their journals and diaries, their pathetic lives laid bare. A love affair gone bad, tender hearts cruelly broken; often one detects a faint whiff of revenge. The only problem is, when you write solely about yourself, sooner or later the material grows stale…or runs out all together.
Which is why the latest “next Margaret Atwood” or “next ______” (your favorite literary icon here) invariably lasts one or two books and is never heard from again.
I’m reminded of the old song that goes: It don’t mean a thing/’til you prove it all night.
True, I think, for any worthwhile endeavor.
The creative life demands a special kind of courage and commitment—it requires a soul-defining leap of faith because there’s no guarantee you’ll be successful, very little chance of your work achieving posterity. Many superb artists have died broke and unknown.
But those who are truly chosen don’t give a whit for fame and fortune, they create for the sheer pleasure of knowing that they are working without restrictions or outside expectations, designing and shaping their efforts to their own specifications and aesthetic purposes. They’re not trying to emulate someone else or jump on a popular bandwagon. Their visions may be personal, unprecedented, bizarre (by popular standards), but there’s a shining brilliance to them, helping them achieve a universality that makes them accessible to people of vastly different geographies, even epochs.
Think Homer. Sophocles. Poe. Baudelaire. Kafka. Picabia.
Authors who defy convention, risk penury, disapprobation, despair.
Vasili Grossman and Friedrich Reck, writing in the face of discovery, imprisonment, death.
And yet they persevered.
So you’ve written a clever poem, a halfway decent short story, posted it on your blog. Six people have “Liked” it. Good for you.
Are you prepared to sit down tomorrow and the next day and the day after that…until your allotment of days run out? Writing and re-writing, driving yourself to distraction trying to achieve quality, well-crafted prose. The search for improvement, perfection never ceases. I’ll testify to that.
I’ve been in this biz a long time, much longer than most, and it’s still hard, still a challenge every day to summon the courage to walk into my office, plunk myself down and commence work on my latest writing project. As I’ve gotten older, my standards have risen and so the act of composition has become even more challenging and immersive than it was when I first started out. In other words, it doesn’t get easier, kids, it gets harder.
Dreaming about writing doesn’t get you there, promising yourself that you’ll start something serious in November, when National Novel Writing Month rolls around, won’t cut it either. If you’re a writer, a real writer, you can’t wait. As much as the chore of writing depresses and intimidates you, you can’t resist reaching for a pen and putting something down on paper. Anything to fill that blank page, defeating the white silence. Only then is there a sense of fulfillment, completion, our purpose for existing realized.
How does that gibe with your experience?
Are you a dabbler? A hobbyist? A wannabe?
Or do you have the courage to take a great leap…without the slightest notion or concern for what awaits you far below?