“…these people…want to be considered serious writers; but they have come to believe that they can accomplish this by means of a convenient shortcut. And the industry that produces how-to manuals plays to them, makes money from their hope of finding a way to be a writer, rather than doing the work, rather than actually spending the time to absorb what is there in the vast riches of the world’s literature, and then crafting one’s own voice out of the myriad of voices.
My advice? Put the manuals and how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose. To my mind, nothing is as important as good writing, because in literature, the walls between people and cultures are broken down, and the things that plague us most—suspicion and fear of the other, and the tendency to see whole groups of people as objects, as monoliths of one cultural stereotype or another—are defeated.
This work is not done as a job, ladies and gentlemen, it is done out of love for the art and the artists who brought it forth, and who still bring it forth to us, down the years and across ignorance and chaos and borderlines. Riches. Nothing to be skipped over in the name of some misguided intellectual social-climbing. Well, let me paraphrase William Carlos Williams, American poet: literature has no practical function, but every day people die for lack of what is found there.”
Richard Bausch, in The Atlantic Monthly
Would the posers and wannabes out there PLEASE note: when you’re a real writer, every fucking month is “national novel writing month”.
Now go back to flipping burgers or whatever it is you do, and leave literature to the professionals…the people who, through years of sweat and sacrifice, have earned the right to call themselves authors.
Shame on you for daring to include yourself in their company…
For a minimum of five bucks, you bought your ticket and took your chance (I don’t suppose either Messrs. Harper and Trudeau were among the contributors).
I didn’t win and I think that’s a shame.
It would have been a very interesting meal.
First of all, we’d likely be dining in some fancy-shmancy Toronto establishment–decidedly not my type of joint. I’d have no idea which fork to use, the proper placement of a cloth napkin and, as a rule, only wear neckties for weddings and funerals. Out of nervousness, and since the Party would be picking up the tab, not taxpayers, I’d quickly order a ripping good scotch (“a double, please”) and the evening would start going downhill from there…
* * *
Mr. Mulcair’s colleague, Andrew Cash, and my co-winner (let’s call her Mary, a retired art teacher from New Brunswick), try to keep the conversation on safe ground, discussing the weather and Liberal policies (both of which are judged to be too fickle, ha ha), but I’m having none of that. That first-rate scotch is working wonders on my system and, after all, this is my chance to talk turkey with one of the big boys.
First off, I’d want to know Tom’s views on Tony Blair’s “New Labour”. Before he had time to lower his eyebrows, I’d go on a tirade about the Blair’s invertebrate ideology (i.e. its utter spinelessness). He purged the party of its leftwing, its visionaries, the folks who carried the red flag and espoused traditional socialist causes like unions, class equality, progressivism, etc.
“Oh, sorry, Tom, I used the ‘S’ word, didn’t I? By the way, do you, in any way, still consider yourself a socialist? Do you believe in a classless society, do you favor universal, state-sponsored health care, a tax regime whereby the wealthy pay their fair share and economic policies that strictly legislate financial institutions and corporations, etc.?” A waiter hovers beside him and Mr. Mulcair raises his eyes hopefully but now I want to know if the Leader is familiar with the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, his book The Price of Inequality. I remind him that even the IMF now says that “trickle down economics” (priming the pump at the top of the human food chain) doesn’t work and, in fact, only institutionalizes inequity. Those bastards at the Chicago School of Economics must be chewing the furniture in frustration. Decades of neo-liberal horseshit discounted in one press release…and hardly anyone noticed. Too busy following Caitlyn Jenner’s hijinks. What a bunch of fucking monkeys we are.
“I’m wondering, Tom, if you’ve given much thought to the level of taxation North Americans, particularly Canadians, are willing to absorb in order to guarantee the kind of ‘cradle to the grave’ protection they deserve. The highest income tax bracket in France is something like 70%, isn’t it? Must be the same with those Scandinavian countries leftists are always trotting out as their idea of Utopia. What is it here in Canada? Nowhere near that kind of threshold, I’m afraid. Are you willing to follow the lead of your socialist brothers abroad?” The waiter drifts away and the Leader slumps in his chair.
“And don’t you think it’s time to forget about the PST and GST and instead come up with a GCT–that is, Grotesque Consumption Tax. Targeting those greedhead, hedonistic assholes who spend more than forty thousand dollars on a vehicle or a million bucks on a house. McMansions, fancy boats, lakefront properties; conspicuous consumption far beyond what this planet can possibly sustain.”
The Leader’s eyes light up. He has a set patter on the environment, a power point presentation he’s learned by heart. But does his plan involve:
“…extraordinarily high fines for polluters and serious jail time for the most grievous offenders. Anyone embarking on an enterprise that could be potentially harmful to the environment must put aside a significant pool of money so that after the logging/mining is done, all the environmental damage must be fixed and the land fully rehabilitated. And the transition away from oil, gas and coal (which should have started immediately following Kyoto) must be made official, with a hefty carbon tax, higher fuel taxes, higher plane fares, etc.”
The Leader is turning green, and I don’t mean in the David Suzuki sense. But I know the numbers and one of the guys I absolutely revere is Bill McKibben over at 350.org. He says this planet is already in the red, environmentally speaking, way past the point of no return, and if we want to mitigate the damage for our children and grandchildren we need radical, profound solutions today, rather than mealy-mouthed liberal-democratic claptrap about “improving sustainability”.
I’m furious that the closer the NDP has come to power—and, to be fair to Mr. Mulcair, his predecessor Jack Layton was equally guilty—the less it has reflected its leftwing, progressive roots. I believe that Canadians are looking for a true alternative to the depradations of capitalism they witness every day, locally and internationally. They want the elimination of entrenched power elites and a more egalitarian society where the rule of law is equally applied and citizens pay their fair share.
The alternative of capitalism is not libertarian economics–that merely preserves the cruel philosophy of the survival of the richest, the most cunning and ruthless continuing to have their day. No, the only viable, credible ideology for a near future of shrinking resources, economic uncertainty and the perils accompanying climate change, is socialism. Undiluted and unapologetic, reflecting its root themes: class struggle, equality, human rights.
Socialism demands that we confront our problems together, none among us allowed to shirk responsibility—it’s a way of approaching the world that requires local cooperation, participation on a grassroots level. Councils and bodies created to deal with pressing concerns, the membership constantly rotating to avoid the accumulation of power and influence. The purest form of democracy I can envision.
I see little of that in the NDP platform. I see a lot of talk meant to placate the business and financial communities, letting them know they have nothing to fear from Tommy Mulcair and his crowd. They’re the “new” kind of New Democrats, hugging that yellow streak in the middle of the road, virtually indistinguishable from the Liberals (except for Justin’s commendable stance on marijuana).
At the conclusion of the meal, the Leader politely shakes my hand…then grabs an aide from a nearby table and as the two of them hustle off, it appears “our next Prime Minister” is savagely berating the poor man. I hear him growl “….and be sure to fire whatever dumb sonofabitch thought up this stunt in the first place.”
Ah, well. I tried.
The night is still young and Toronto offers some fine book stores.
Think I’ll go looking for a biography of Rosa Luxemburg.
Remember her, Tom?
There was a gal with the courage and integrity to match her convictions.
Can you, in all conscience, honestly say the same?
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.
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?
No, it only seems that long since my last post.
And you know I haven’t been idle. Nossir, not this author.
Besides, judging by the surge in subscribers of late, apparently I don’t need to post regularly. All these new people signing up to my blog and I’ve hardly said a word since Christmas…d’you folks realize the mixed messages you’re sending?
I’ve been in heavy duty editing mode since mid-December, really bearing down on this new novel of mine. Definitely making encouraging progress but refusing to let up until my perfectionism and obsessive-compulsiveness cry “uncle!”.
Just about ready to talk in more detail about this latest project, which has been assigned an official release date, May 1, 2015. Gimme a couple more weeks and I’ll be answering some of the queries regarding the book friends and readers have been zipping my way almost from the moment I announced its existence.
I will tell you it’s yet another departure for me, a “genre” I haven’t tackled before. I like to keep my readers on their toes, doncha know.
During my thirty year career I’ve written science fiction, fantasy, horror, mainstream/literary, western/cowboy, poetry, radio drama, music lyrics…what’s left? You’ll find out in a few weeks.
A fun time over the Christmas holidays–our little family reunited and this hundred year old house literally rocking on its foundations. Made out like a bandit, in terms of Christmas gifts. My tastes are extremely weird and varied, I’m very hard to please but, somehow, folks around me manage. I doff my hat to them. My favorite book I received was Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary–fantastic tome, I “Tweeted” a number of quotes, gems of wisdom and experience. Imagine hoisting a few tall, cold ones with a posse that included Serge, Walter Benjamin, Karl Kraus and, say, Albert Camus. That would make for some memorable bon mots, methinks. And maybe a fistfight or three (Kraus was a notorious prick).
I managed to read 107 books in 2014 (the second year in a row I cracked a hundred). My favorite books in terms of fiction were David Gilbert’s & Sons, as well as a couple of short story collections, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives (Brad Watson) and Emerald Light in the Air by the great Donald Antrim. My colleague Corey Redekop asked a number of authors to compile their reading lists for 2014 and here’s my contribution.
Movies I’ve enjoyed over the last couple of weeks: “Locke” (starring Tom Hardy) and “Her” with Joaquin Phoenix. The former was especially good–Hardy carries the film single-handedly, a virtuoso performance.
Music? Mark Lanegan, The Stooges, Wall of Voodoo, The Swans, Jacqueline Du Pre, Gene Autry…the usual mixed bag.
But I’ve taxed your patience long enough.
Before I go, I want to thank the folks who’ve purchased copies of my latest collection, Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination. The brisk sales have surprised me and I’ll likely have to put in a supplementary order to my printer before too long.
Keep those messages and questions coming (email@example.com) and watch this space for more exciting news in the days to come.
I’m a sucker for Christmas.
You wouldn’t think it, would you? It goes against my curmudgeonly nature, my cynical contempt for most things human conceived and generated. But around mid-December, my icy heart thaws (a little) and I begin to harbor a few (tentative) good feelings toward the sentient bipeds inhabiting this planet.
The mood and setting are critical:
Fireplace. Blazing away. The tang and pop of pine wood. The temperature outside plunging but do we care?
Booze. Hopefully someone will bring along some single malt scotch (Glenfiddich or Glenmorangie would be lovely) and, if not, there’s wine and Guinness beer, a little something for every thirst.
Gifts. I take gift-giving very seriously. Nothing frivolous, everything carefully considered. Usually that means the right book to the right person. My track record there is pretty good.
Tree. Must be real and decorated with the minimum of ostentation. Home made ornaments and family mementos. Our ragged ass angel stuck at the top.
Programming. The essentials: the Vienna Boys Choir and Gene Autry crooning in the background and, in the evening, on TV, “Charlie Brown Christmas”, the original “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, “The Muppets Christmas” and, in the last few years “The Trailer Park Boys” Christmas show (hilarious and surprisingly touching). A few years ago I improvised, adding “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” but that didn’t go over well. Some people just don’t appreciate cinematic excellence.
Laughter. This hundred year old house shuddering on its foundations, howls and yodels of mirth rattling the windows.
Christmas, at the Burns residence.
* * * *
A couple of past posts relating to Christmas:
Click here to read “The Gospel of St. Nicholas“, based on recent archaeological digs in the Middle East. I discovered some startling new evidence on the historical figure of St. Nicholas that contradicts previous theories regarding the life and death of the man who would become Santa Claus. Shocking stuff.
And, finally, a few Christmases back I posted a Christmas story starring my two beloved occult detectives Cassandra Zinnea and Evgeny Nightstalk, featured in my novel So Dark the Night. “Finding Charlotte” is a case from the early days of their partnership, a missing person report that turns out to be more complicated than initial appearances.
Happy holidays to readers and regular visitors to this blog.
Best wishes for 2015 and here’s hoping there’s better times to come.
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.