In my latest book, Mouth: Rants and Routines, there’s a particularly virulent diatribe against idiots. You know, people with the minds of boll weevils and the imagination of stone outcroppings.
I am not tolerant when it comes to morons; in point of fact, I eat them alive.
I floated my mini-essay “Stupid People: A Case for Eugenics” among family and a few selected friends, and my oldest son Liam identified it as a particular favorite. He requested a recorded version and I have acquiesced.
I also recorded several other pieces that same day, added some incidental music and posted them on my Bandcamp page. You’ll find quite a bit of my work there, both readings and ambient, spacey music. All of it free for listening and downloading. Be my guest.
If you haven’t already, I urge you to download the complete ebook of Mouth: Rants and Routines—it’s available dirt cheap in both major ebook formats—and, once you read it, please leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads or Librarything or…wherever. I can’t emphasize how important a good review is for an unheralded book by the weirdo, cult writer from western Canada.
Here’s “Stupid People”, on MP3. Anybody else out there have similar problems putting up with the dummies in their life? Tell us all about it…
I’ve been promising a preview of the cover of my collection of political and personal rants and here it is.
My wife Sherron provided the original cover art and also handled the design.
Mouth will be released initially as an ebook and we’ll see what happens from there.
It is a harsh, unrelenting depiction of our narcissistic, superficial culture, a breath of fresh air for those who are fed up with a society narrow-focussed on the trivial, while the rest of the world burns.
Anticipating a publication date of April 30th, but I will be posting excerpts between now and then, a few teasers to whet your appetite.
I comment on different topics: “The Writing Life”, “Inspired by Fear”, “Why I Love Science Fiction”.
Hope you find something worthwhile in these monologues, insights into the way I approach my craft, the psychology behind some of my best known stories.
Let’s say I do it, let’s say, dearest,
I tear down this crummy, old fence
of ours—then what?
Do I replace it with another fence,
clean and white and perfectly straight,
the wood treated with poison
solvents to keep it from weathering?
Perhaps a higher fence, six feet
or more, the boards squeezed close
together to dissuade prying eyes;
a solid wall to keep others out.
If I plant some kind of hedge, caragana
or what have you, as has been suggested,
will I feel suitably secure (i.e. is such a flimsy
barrier a credible deterrent against thieves)?
The other option is to leave our backyard
wide open and accessible to the alley…but
I’m not comfortable with that.
I agree that our fence is worn out,
dilapidated, something of an eyesore;
I apologize if it embarrasses you.
But as I’ve just explained, it’s no easy
matter replacing it—and some of your ideas
involve considerable expense. We must not
act hastily, allow emotion to over-rule reason.
I think for now I’ll keep propping it up as best
I can, until a practical solution presents itself
or, more likely, the entire goddamned thing finally
collapses, defeated by a horde of years.
* * * * *
Apparently I suffered from a
“cute anxiety”, that’s what Miss Haynes,
the school counselor, told my mother,
which somehow explained the boils,
bed-wetting and frequent crying fits.
I remember wondering if this cuteness
was curable and how I got it when I
was such an ugly child, my sisters said
so, and no one else took my side or
stated a contrary view.
The woman, let’s call her Margaret, pauses at the conclusion of her account, looking up at me with an expression of bewilderment. “I don’t know why I told you all that. You have that kind of face…” She trails off and our conversation concludes not long afterward.
Why did Margaret, a woman I barely know, just spend nearly ten minutes bending my ear about her husband’s fraught relationship with his brother? In the process disclosing many intimate details that should never be passed along to a virtual stranger.
And she’s not the only one.
People tell me things. All sorts of things. Funny and crazy and tragic and personal. People on buses, people who do work on my house, people I’m waiting in line with at the bank…casual acquaintances and complete strangers. Men and women turning to me, a confession already forming in their mind.
“You’re a good listener,” my wife tells me. “That’s part of it. You seem interested in what they’re saying. That’s your first mistake…”
Maybe Yoko Ono is right and there are “a lot of lonely people out there”. I guess that was part of the attraction of the Post Secret project a few years ago. People dying to get their crimes and misdeeds off their chest…anonymously, of course, their courage only extended so far. Similarly, it’s easier to confess some things to strangers or barely familiar faces than to family members and loved ones. A weird kink of psychology.
I spend most of my time alone, isolated. When I do interact with folks, I’m anxious to talk about anything but my work and dull routine…and that might be at least partially responsible for the true confessions and guilty secrets I’ve been subjected to over the years. Some of them not for the squeamish. And if I make the mistake of admitting I’m an author, there are individuals who immediately perk up: well, if you’re a writer, you’ll love hearing what’s been going on in my life lately…
Er, not really, no.
But once people start revealing their problems and complaints there’s just no holding them back. I’ve heard about failed marriages, infidelity, felonies and misdemeanors, nodded sympathetically as men and women tearfully surrendered indiscretions they should have been saving for their priest or shrink. I have no right to this knowledge and yet, afterward, feel protective of what I’ve learned, a certain responsibility to be discreet. The sanctity of the confessional. I think folks sense that as well; a quiet, lonely, reclusive man: who can I possibly tell?
It’s very difficult for me to be rude. I detest breaking into someone’s train of thought, interrupting them in mid-sentence because something they’re telling me is inappropriate, better kept to themselves. Politeness has its drawbacks and I’ve endured many an awkward, one-sided conversation simply because I lack the chutzpah to clear my throat, give an impatient frown or simply walk away.
And, anyway, how can you walk away from a young clerk, enormously pregnant, helping me find a stencil set and, meanwhile, telling me about the heart defect that threatens the life of her unborn baby. Thirty seconds after walking into the store. What can I say? How do I respond?
But she’s looking at me, describing the diagnosis and proposed treatment, affirming the importance of faith in her life, talking freely, without a trace of self-consciousness.
Something in my manner or expression assuring her, a sympathy that cannot be feigned.
While I, for my part, refuse to deny her the kindness of a stranger, shared concern for a child in distress.
My time is not so important, surely, that I can’t spare a minute or two to commiserate or console. These meetings, though frequently taxing, part of the burden I bear for having “that kind of face”.
The other day my wife told me that I still don’t understand how to properly use tools like Twitter and Facebook to network with like-minded folks, in the process publicizing my writing to an ever-widening circle of “friends”.
“How many people are you following? How many blogs?”
And I ruefully had to admit that the number was pretty paltry.
“You see? How do you expect to promote yourself or make more people want to read your books?”
She’s right, of course. On every single count. And I know at first glance it seems like I’m breaking a cardinal rule and not showing proper consideration for men and women who, like me, are trying to communicate the joys and sorrows inherent in the human condition. The experience of being alive, from a variety of perspectives (language, culture and geography be damned).
My problem is time.
I’m a full-time writer. That’s what I do, seven days a week. Seven-thirty in the morning I pour my first cup of coffee, walk upstairs to my home office and check the e-mails that have accumulated overnight. Part of my routine. By then, both my sons are stirring, getting themselves dressed, ready for school. My wife usually leaves for her job around 8:00, my lads head out about 8:40 and I’m alone in the house until mid-afternoon.
Once I finish e-mails, glance at the news, post a couple of things on LibraryThing, I fire on some music and settle down to serious business. There’s always a project on the go, work “in the pipeline”. For the past decade it’s been longer efforts, novels and novellas, and they require enormous concentration, a complete immersion in the worlds they’re portraying.
I’m at it all day, breaking for a (very) quick lunch, maybe run some errands, toss in one or two loads of laundry, satisfy myself that the bathrooms aren’t too septic. Can’t have the people from the Center for Disease Control inspecting us again, imposing another quarantine…
Sometimes Sherron’s job takes her far afield and I have to figure out something for supper (my shepherd’s pie is particularly well-regarded). I catch up with what’s happening with my sons, find out how they’re doing at school, make sure we’re all on the same page. They’re both teenagers and their lives are a whole lot more complicated these days.
After supper, it’s back to the office, finish up for the day, wind things down, answer pressing e-mails, maybe listen to some comedy on BBC4 to help decompress. By then, it might be 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. Shut off the computer, go downstairs, spend some time with my family, watch a movie or TV show (we only have 1 1/2 channels so we usually have to rent boxed sets or borrow them from chums).
And then it’s bedtime.
With that kind of schedule, there isn’t much of a chance to devote even half an hour to keeping up with all the Tweets and updates and latest poop that my various
friends acquaintances might have posted during the course of the day. I’m a writer, but I’m also a full-time dad and husband and my workaholic nature combined with my family obligations just doesn’t leave much wiggle room.
So…cutting to the chase: I’m very sorry if I’m not following your blog or making an effort to reach out more through various forums and social networks. I hope you’ll understand the constraints I’m operating under and realize there are priorities…and only a finite number of hours in the day. If it’s any consolation, I recently cancelled my weekly “StumbleUpon” recommendations because I never had time to glance at them and usually just deleted the message.
Writers write. That’s what I do. That’s basically all I do. No weekends off, no holidays. The wages are lousy, the rewards few. I’m my own boss but can’t conceive of a harsher taskmaster. No relief, no respite.
It’s not much of a life, I’ll warrant you, but it’s the only one I’ve got.
I guess I’d better get used to it.
“Who am I? A stranger here and always…”
William S. Burroughs, Rub Out the Word (Collected Letters 1959-74)
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.
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.