Our youngest kid has now flown the coop and we are, officially, empty nesters. The house seems damn strange without our boys pounding up and down the steps, blasting music or bellowing at their video games in their basement hidey-hole. The silence, as they say, is deafening. But they’re both ready to be out in the world, anxious to be on their own. They’ll have their tough days, intervals when it seems like the whole universe has lined up against them. But they’ll make it. They’re tough and resourceful and bloody smart. Which gives them a leg up in any society.
So we begin 2014, Sherron and I, somewhat sorrowful, missing the lads but eager to get on with the next phase of our lives; back to being a couple again, exploring the world together, seeing where our dreams take us.
I’m fifty years old, as of last October, and that’s also made a difference. I thought any change or transformation would be largely symbolic but turning fifty combined with our sons’ departure has put a whole new slant on things. I feel like another man.
To start with, I realize that more than half my life is gone and if I’m lucky I could have twenty or twenty-five healthy years ahead of me (with my genetics, that might be pushing it). That’s not a lot of time. As a result, I’m not going to waste any of it on stupid discussions, movies, books, music, feuds or anything that doesn’t further my pursuit of wisdom, joy and matters relating to the spirit.
I did a considerable amount of writing in 2013 (not unexpected) but I also found myself exploring other media, employing a variety of means to express myself. As a result, I created more visual pieces than ever before: acrylic paintings, charcoal drawings, lots of photographs, ambient soundscapes, even a short film. Will this trend continue in 2014 or were all these non-literary ventures merely an aberration? Experiments, nothing more.
We shall see.
I know that for some time I’ve occasionally experienced a certain amount of frustration with the limits of language and wish to communicate via non-narrative, non-linear means. Abstraction invites collaboration, interpretation, input from the audience/viewer. The vast majority of my visual work frustrates literal-mindedness—the equivalent of Rorschach Tests, shapes demanding speculation and discussion.
Not for everyone.
Obviously, one of the high points of 2013 was the release of my short story collection Exceptions and Deceptions. The book features what I think is our best cover thus far and includes a batch of stories drawn from the past fifteen years, a couple of them previously unpublished and available nowhere else. Every time I glance up and see it on my shelf, I get a tingle. Fans of Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Jonathan Carroll, Neil Gaiman take note: this one’ll rock your socks off. Trust me.
Another fun experience was collaborating with my son Sam on an instrumental number which he then incorporated into a short film for Sherron’s “Agassiz” mask/puppet production, debuting later this month. Sam’s film is a gem and as soon as he uploads it to YouTube or Vimeo, I’ll post a link.
Let’s see, what else…in November I was astonished to learn my volume New & Selected Poems (1984-2011) was shortlisted for a ReLit independent press award. My bizarre verse? Really?
Managed to read one hundred books in 2013, though at one point I didn’t think I’d make it to #80. A big surge in November-December put me over the top. The 100th book, completed December 30th? Italo Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun. What a way to finish off the year.
I’ve been noticing how much my reading tastes have changed over the past number of years—hardly any genre stuff these days, except for a bit of SF and the odd mystery/thriller by LeHane or Philip Kerr. Much less fiction, overall. Gimme a fat, juicy history book any day.
We don’t have cable, so we don’t watch television. Have no idea what shows are popular on the boob tube and couldn’t care less. Ditto with movies. By far the best movie I saw last year was Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio”. Haven’t heard of it? Tsk, tsk. Grab it off NetFlix, buy or rent it from Amazon, do not miss this flick.
Music? The new Queens of the Stone Age, as well as Nine Inch Nails (live), Steven Wilson, Mogwai, Benjamin Britten and Gene Autry’s Greatest Hits. Keepin’ it diverse.
Looking ahead: I’ll be working on my new novel, as well as prepping…ah, well, mustn’t give too much away. Let’s just say that Black Dog Press has a number of releases pending in the next eighteen months and there will be further information announced in the days to come.
All the best in 2014.
Thanks, as always, for dropping by and hanging out awhile.
A lovely photo by Sherron, taken on our back deck.
The sunny weather means that I’ve been outside, raking and doing yardwork…and found the imprint of a maple leaf, pressed into the cement.
The picture I took wasn’t nearly as nice…
Why didn’t I tag along (you ask, impudently)?
Because my mind isn’t ready for a vacation right now. Matter of fact, for some reason summer is the time of year when my Muse really puts the pedal to the metal. A good number of my novels and best short stories were drafted during the months of June-August. Maybe a hormonal thing, who knows? So, while everyone else is outside, barbequing or going to the lake, renting a cottage, enjoying yourselves, you’ll find me in my sweltering 10′ X 12′ home office, my door open, the fan on high to make the environment livable as I toil away on some literary project.
This year is no exception. My western novel, The Last Hunt, devours much of my time. I’m supposed to be taking a break from it at the moment but I can’t help poking my nose in, doing more research, scribbling notes, conceiving questions for some of the historians who have generously offered to lend a hand with the scenes set in Yellowstone Park. They’ll provide me with historical background, period detail and invaluable advice and input (and God bless ’em). I’ll be visiting that region of Montana later this summer, doing some on the spot scouting and location hunting. It will be my first trip of any significance in a long time (I blush to say how long). This borderline agoraphobic workaholic is trembling at the notion of being away from my desk for any length of time but I am utterly convinced of the necessity of this trip. It will better establish the mood and setting of The Last Hunt and add some of the authenticity I think the present draft is lacking.
But I must confess I have another reason for remaining home. It isn’t often I get the house to myself for days at a stretch and on those rare occasions that I do…well, I like to take full advantage of it. I play loud music, from the time I get up to the wee hours of the morning. I keep the windows shut, the drapes drawn and for one or two days I let myself go. Stalk about in my bathrobe, unshaven, neglecting the laundry, neglecting to eat properly, neglecting to answer the phone or interact with the outside world.
It’s glorious and terrifying and, ultimately, beneficial.
I sit in my office, staring at my slippers while The Vandelles, A Place to Bury Strangers, The Replacements, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, etc. thunder from overhead speakers, loud enough to force me further back in my chair. Lately, I like my music hard and dirty, a la the Vandelles’ “Lovely Weather” (crank it up!).
Meanwhile, I’m doing a good deal of scribbling—journaling and spontaneous or “automatic” writing like the Surrealists used to champion. These writings represent Rorschach Tests and they give a pretty good idea of what’s on my mind, the preoccupations and fears dogging me. Plenty of speculations on the spiritual front—I keep that up, I’m liable to end up with a gazillion page Exegesis, similar to Philip K. Dick. And will likely be considered just as loony, should anyone happen to stumble across these errant, inexpert ramblings on God, the nature of reality and my own pitiful existence.
These writing exercises often trigger intervals of hellish introspection, long hours spent reviewing past sins and ruminating over the sorry state of my literary career, even after a quarter century of putting words on paper. The mental boo birds come out and I subject myself to a great deal of vitriol before the nattering voices either subside, wear themselves out or are chastened by a very Bugs Bunny-like snarl originating from the depths of my id:
I have trouble sleeping when my family’s away, find the nights hard to endure. I kill time by staying up and watching a double or triple header of movies. Guy flicks and guilty pleasures; science fiction and thrillers given precedence. This time around I’ve set aside flicks like “Michael Clayton”, “All the President’s Men”, “The Searchers”, “Shadow of the Vampire”, “The Bad Lieutenant”. Nothing too crazy, re: anything by Ken Russell or (shudder) “Eraserhead”.
And for reading material, Terence McKenna’s The Archaic Revival and Graham Hancock’s Supernatural. Far-fetched stuff? Pseudo-science? To me, what these lads propose is nowhere near as crazy as some of the notions held by billions of people of all faiths around the world. I am intrigued by what triggered that “monolith moment”, when our kind first opened their eyes to the possibility and mystery of the world and took a crucial evolutionary step, moving further away from their humble origins and toward a spectacular destiny. This transformation coincided with the earliest cave art and the enactment of burial rituals, a species awakening to the existence of other realms and principalities.
Mebbe Bill Hicks is right and a certain humble fungus, naturally occurring, is responsible. I guess we’d need a time machine to find out for sure. Intriguing thought, though…
I suppose when all is said and done, my time alone is therapeutic, cathartic. I miss out on a chance to hang out with good folks, do some boating and fishing in some of the most gorgeous scenery this country has to offer. But the soul-searching, self-Inquisition and psychic ass-kicking blows off steam, relieves the accumulated pressures that accompany the creative life. In my solitude, I can confront my demons and it’s a no-holds-barred, no quarter given bloodbath. It’s not pleasant but it is necessary. All part of the ongoing struggle to define myself as an artist, to better delineate the precepts and ideals I live by, requiring me to identify aspects within me that are working against those higher purposes and undermining my essential faith in the worthiness of my endeavors. Demons, indeed, with hideous countenances, avid, savage expressions and appetites. They are the worst parts of me and during the next few days I shall brawl, joust and treat with them, in the end probably settling for another draw, a few more months of relative peace on the emotional/spiritual front.
You say that’s not much of a bargain but, then, clearly your demons aren’t nearly as unreasonable, their intentions not as deliberately malign.
For that, count yourself lucky.
You are very fortunate indeed.
Photos by Sherron Burns
There’s been a lot of bad news of late. Friends and close acquaintances in dire straits. A memorial service for a kid only a few years older than our boys. Death seems to be hovering in the air around us, playing eeny-meeny-miney-mo with people we care about. A cruel, arbitrary figure, a Shade with a mean streak.
We’ve reached middle age now and we have to expect losses. Like the old Doors song goes: no one here gets out alive. But it’s not right when it’s kids who are afflicted and young mothers and devoted partners…blameless ones who shouldn’t be singled out for torment or earmarked for an early demise. They deserve better. That they should suffer is unfair and a universe that permits that to happen can’t possibly be caring or sentient or the slightest bit aware of our existence. A cold, dead universe. Endless and eternal and empty.
I know nothing of the physics of death. I can’t tell you the weight of a human soul or confirm that such a thing even exists. I’ve tried reading up on the science—the conversion of matter to energy and the possibility of alternate universes, hyper-realities—but, in the end, my intelligence and imagination just aren’t up to the task.
All I know is that I love you and these recent, grim reminders of mortality make me appreciate what we have and give thanks for every drawn breath. These bedside vigils and funerals are rehearsals for a time that is bound to come and we lose one of ours. That may sound selfish but it’s not. Our grief is just as sincere and our sympathy for what those poor families must be enduring genuine and heartfelt. We imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes and our souls quake. When faced with such a horrifying spectacle, we avert our eyes.
To experience the death of a loved one is, to my mind, the ultimate test of faith. Can your belief system withstand a loss so profound? Can your theology and/or worldview accommodate an agony that rends your very being? Can your God bear the heat of your anguish and rage?
We’ve been together a long time, you and I. Not only in this lifetime but before that. We’ve known each other and always recognize one another each time we meet. As long as you are with me, I can survive anything. I truly believe this. Grief and despair may make me a shadow of my former self but as long as I am comforted by the knowledge of your existence, I will persist, I will struggle; against the odds, against the darkness, believing to my dying breath that being your lover and confidante ennobles me and gives me purpose, the will to go on.
You are all the proof I need. There are terrible things afoot, a darkness creeping in from the edges. Let’s treasure our time together, love, rather than allow fear to take from us all that is worth keeping and preserving. We must refuse to allow mortal dread to defeat us and it is our shared strength that will save us. In the face of death, affirm that we are alive and full of passion and joy and foolish dreams. Confronted by the worst, we pledge to show a brave face, while clutching at each other for the companionship and comfort we know we will find there.
Yes, indeed, I’ve been away, a rare trip that took me out of my home office and transported me across vast distances to exotic, terrifying centres like Calgary and Edmonton. Gather ye around and I’ll tell you all about it:
It’s a journey I should have taken long ago but, what can I tell you, I’m not a travellin’ kinda guy. Sherron and I have been talking this over for some time, debating the pluses and minuses of a road trip so we could take copies of my novel So Dark the Night around to bookstores and beg, threaten and/or bribe them into stocking it. It took some work but Sher finally convinced me we had to do whatever was necessary to get the book somewhere it’s going to get noticed, start some buzz. I did some research and identified around 10 bookstores, many of them indie, in Calgary & Edmonton that would be a good fit for So Dark the Night.
I have to say, the booksellers in Calgary and Edmonton treated us with exemplary courtesy and respect. They always listened to my pitch with patience and a fairly convincing display of attentiveness. We made some great sales and contacts and even the places that didn’t take the book outright asked for either a sample copy to look over or a promo flier (which we just happened to have on hand). Certain bookstores and staffs stand out: the folks at Pages, in Calgary’s Kensington district, and the dudes at Greenwood’s Bookshoppe in Edmonton. Liz Janzen at the stunning Chapters/Indigo store on Whyte Ave. in Edmonton (Liz, I could’ve chatted with you all day)…book lovers and enthusiasts, trying to keep the printed word alive and vibrant. I salute you and I hope you sell gazillions of copies of So Dark the Night.
But the trip wasn’t all business. July 28th marked our 20th wedding anniversary and Sherron and I celebrated in fine style at a luvly cabin just outside Jasper (a place called Pine Bungalows). Lots of wildlife…including roaming elk and the resort’s mascot, a chubby white cat Sherron dubbed Harold. Harold found us one night as we were star-gazing and hung around until we returned to our cabin.
On the way to Edmonton, we picked up our son Sam, who had been attending film camp with his crony and collaborator Sean. The two of them shot and edited (they’d completed the script ahead of time) a 20-minute short about a botched caper called “Newton’s Cradle” that is smashing. Look for it on YouTube—or over at their blog—one day soon (they’re going to give it a final tweak before releasing it). Fantastic job, guys.
Of course, visiting so many bookstores I couldn’t resist picking up a few titles for my personal library: Wandering Star by Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. Le Clezio; Wonderful World by Javier Calvo; Already Dead by Denis Johnson and Andrew Collins’ Where Did It All Go Right?
One of the high points of the trip was buying a new hat, a Barmah, made in Australia and built for abuse. Found it in a store at Lake Louise while we were waiting out a downpour and Sherron twisted my arm until I bought it. Okay, I exaggerate slightly. I threw a fit in the store and screamed until she gave in and said I could have it. Not quite accurate but a lot closer to the truth than the first version.
Yes, I know: pathetic.
It was a marvelous trip and that is entirely to Sherron’s credit. I’m more than a trifle agoraphobic and the idea of being away from home for any length of time fills me with dread and foreboding. But Sher made this trip fun and stress-free and I have to say I enjoyed being away from my desk for a few days, taking a breather and soaking up the beauty of our Rocky Mountains.
I feel better, re-charged and back in balance. New projects beckon and a good chunk of the summer is gone. Time to get refocussed and into a good groove. Busy times ahead.
Watch this space for further developments…
All this fun I’ve been having with Garageband means that I’ve been a trifle negligent with new blog posts and for that, my apologies.
But I’ll try to make it up to you by posting a new short story that I absolutely love. This time it’s a longer effort, around 2000 words–titled “Death Threats” for reasons that will become clear as the story progresses. I’ll post both an audio version and a PDF for those of you who either don’t like the sound of my voice (understandable) or who lack the ability to download the recording.
I have a great deal of affection for this story, which was written in mid-late May (2009). Have no idea what took me so long to add it to this blog. My guess is that this tale sort of fell by the wayside while I worked on the four linked stories that devoured my entire summer. This is a stand-alone effort and I feel quite confident that it will find favor in your eyes (and ears).
Enjoy, my friends and please do let me know what you think:
Death Threats (PDF)
My tunes have no shape, they flow and twist enigmatically, illogically. Mood music for troubled minds. Score for a science fiction film never made. Shimmering in the air around you, disappearing without leaving behind so much as a sprinkle of fairy dust.
There’s a strange dichotomy at work here: I’m using this advanced, amazing computer to simulate and record almost any instrument known to humankind…and flubbing and screwing up and patching and improvising…and ending up with some in-teresting stuff.
I’ve got over an hour of music stored in an iTunes folder. Every note of it selected, struck, plucked, bowed, strummed or sampled by yours truly. Using virtual instruments, of course, since I’d be virtually useless if you gave me a real one. Sue me, I’m an eejit savant.
So far this one is our favorite. Hand’s down. A bit of spoken word but just about all instrumental.
I call it “The Departed” and dedicate it to absent friends.
And awayyyyy we go…
An idea will occur to me and all at once I’ll see the story with such perfect clarity that writing it down is a mere formality, almost a matter of taking dictation. “Daughter” was like that. “Also Starring”. “RSVP”. A couple of others. Not many. It doesn’t happen nearly often enough for my liking but when it does, I’m almost sickeningly grateful. Practically grovelling.
Because usually it’s the opposite. A tale like “In Dreams. Awake” for instance, was a monster. You can read it by clicking on the Stories tab (above) and if you do, it’s almost certain you’ll ask yourself: “What’s he going on about?” The story in question is not some post-modernist mind-bender, the kind of dense, inscrutable, erudite text beloved by college professors and potheads; nope, it’s a relatively straightforward narrative, with few bells and whistles. My problem was that I hated the tone of the story, the narrator seemed so cold and remote. I did draft after draft of that sonofabitch, trying to make the protagonist more sympathetic and likable. But the story resisted me, my Muse digging in her heels, insisting I put aside my misgivings and follow orders. Finally, I had to give in and the story is what it is. A fine tale but I have a hard time even looking at it because that rotten bastard was so difficult, each word, each syllable a struggle.
But that was nothing compared to what happened this summer.
I’ve told you a little about it. I spotted the Esquire fiction contest–they provide the titles, participants write the stories–and, as a writing exercise, I wrote on each of the themes they posted. And I described my astonishment when the stories turned out to be linked, sharing the same central character. Believe me when I assure you that I had no intention of writing four stories based around this Conrad Dahl fella.
And I certainly had no idea this quartet would take up my entire summer. That wasn’t the plan. I was supposed to be working on revisions of my next novel. But something happened on the way to that place, my Muse making it clear that these stories were to be given top priority and finished at all costs.
They cost me a lot all right.
None of them was easy. Not one. And writing these pieces seemed to awaken something in me–or perhaps unleash it is a better word. The process of writing left me emotionally, physically and spiritually exhausted, like nothing I’ve experienced since completing my novel So Dark the Night.
I’ve talked about emotional truths re: my radio play “The First Room”. All the facts are made up but the mood, the feeling of the piece is accurate.
I think that’s what happened here. Conrad Dahl is not me. Not in any way, shape or form. None of the events depicted in the stories involving the Dahl character have any relation to real life incidents and my family is/was nothing like this. But…the feeling…the atmosphere…
Something put the whammy into me.
And now I’m passing it on to you. How kind of me, hmm?
I think you’ll quickly discover what I’m talking about.
The four stories below are decidedly mainstream, no vestiges of genre fiction…yet there are aspects here that are as horrifying and intense as anything springing from the pens of the thriller writers who love to keep us all on edge. Sometimes you might be tempted to avert your eyes, cluck your tongue in disapproval. Don’t.
Read on. Explore and discover this character as he grows and develops, follow him from the ages of 9-20 and see how the closing pages of the last story are almost inevitable, directly attributable to the events that have preceded it.
I present the tales in chronological order for those who prefer the linear approach but, really, they can be read independently of each other and should be viewed as stand alone stories.
Feel free to drop a comment below once you’ve read them and had a chance to think about Conrad and his decidedly dysfunctional family.
I welcome your feedback and thoughtful responses…
The other day I received an inquiry from a chap in Jamaica (gotta love that world wide ‘net) regarding my play “The Break: Ten the Hard Way”.
It’s a a drama composed of ten monologues, employing a wide range of perspectives, radically different characters reacting to the impending end of a relationship.
“The Break”, like so many of my projects, started out as a writing exercise. I wrote one monologue and another character, another scenario, immediately presented itself. I didn’t know what to do with “The Break” once I’d finished it…and then, by chance, I caught an interview with two young Saskatoon actors, recent graduates of the University of Saskatchewan drama program. I noted their names and contacted them. Sent them the script and some time later “The Break” made its debut at the Refinery Theatre in Saskatoon, Josh Beaudry handling a very grueling acting assignment brilliantly.
I always thought this one would make the perfect “Fringe” show so, Josh, if you’re ever interested, lemme know.
CBC Radio producer Kelley Jo Burke also excerpted some of the monologues on her “Sound XChange” program.
I was delighted by the reactions this piece elicited and I’m pleased to be able to present it to you, for free reading and downloading.
I’m certain some of these voices, at least, will sound very, very familiar to you…
Go to the “Rarities” page (above) for your free copy
or click here for the free PDF of The Break
Speaking of which, I’d better explain what I’m up to:
This year Esquire magazine is promoting a fiction contest where authors are invited to write stories based on three titles they (the editors) provide. You can visit their website for further details. I discovered the contest in May, printed up the info for later reference. Found the stuff again in late June, thought writing a story based on someone else’s title might be an interesting writing exercise. Wrote down the first title, “Twenty-Ten”, and went for it. Not necessarily thinking of submitting the finished work to the contest, just seeking to limber up my wrists before the real work of the summer began.
Well, I wrote one story and it turned out pretty darn good so the next day, suitably encouraged, I wrote a second and almost immediately a concept occurred to me for the third. So in the space of a few days I had three handwritten drafts. Tapped them into the iMac, opened one up, did a bit of fiddling…and now, three weeks later, here I am.
But I have a problem and I’ll bet you spotted it right away, didn’t you? You’re only supposed to submit one story and I’ve got three I’m quite taken with. I read all of them to my family the other night, hoping they’d immediately point out a winner but the verdict was mixed. They loved the stories, the characters, but each seemed to favor a different tale. Even I had changed my mind as to which one I preferred by the time I’d finished reading the last of them. Good grief. Well…I’ve got until the 31st (what is that, Friday?) to choose one story and edit it into tip-top shape. Because I will indeed be submitting something, despite my oft-repeated reluctance to enter writing competitions. For one thing, there’s no entry fee (mandatory). For another, Esquire, like the BBC, is a flagship, one of those names you’d dearly love, as a writer, to have on your resume. And one last consideration: I’ve written three bloody good tales, any of which is worthy for consideration.
My break’s over. Yesterday was fun: I sat around reading Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark (not one of his great ones, unfortunately), straightened up in the office, cleaned my area of the basement (we’ve been painting and installing a new ceiling light/fan in our kitchen so everything is a mess), listened to some alternative radio on the ‘net, trying to ease up and relax…but it’s time to get back at it. Grind, grind grind. Funny how hard you have to work on a story to make it read and flow naturally.
This tales have already taken up more of my summer than I’d intended–this started out as a simple writing exercise, remember? I still want to dive into edits of my next novel and here we are, approaching the end of July. Yike!
Time to finish up these tales and get back on track. It’s been an intriguing interlude but that novel beckons, miles to go before I sleep and all that.
That’s it for the update.
Hope you’re all having a fun summer. We’re finally getting some hot, sunny days, real Saskatchewan scorchers.
And, last but not least, it’s our 19th anniversary tomorrow.
Thanks, Sherron, for everything.
Forever and ever, doll…