Sorry. Geez. Talk about belated.
Several weeks since my last post and I offer no excuses, no rationale. Yes, I’ve been editing the third draft of my new novel, going through its 200+ pages over and over, shaping and paring, trying to find a consistent voice, a smooth, narrative flow. And, yes, my days are long and intense and my focus can be downright scary at times. That need to immerse myself (there’s no other word) in the world I’m building, basically from scratch. It’s important to envision that creation in as much detail as I possibly can so that it seems credible and fully formed. I know my readers are pretty discerning people.
You have to understand, at times like this, when I’m going full-bore on a project, it’s easy for the rest of Earth Prime to fade away…and that means all ties, all friendships, all responsibilities become, well, superfluous. Wish I could put it more nicely but that’s just the way it is. Sometimes in order to meet the demands of my work I have to become selfish and solipsistic…it’s one of the least attractive aspects of being a creative artist. When a project reaches this state, I literally have to take a leave of absence from my regular life and that can be hard on family, friends and, yes, my small circle of readers and blog followers.
The end result is a completed novel or short story but getting there, while still retaining contact with the people who mean the most to you…that can be a struggle.
I guess what I’m trying to say is be patient with me, know that I’m operating in the thrall of my Muse, my imagination racing, my brain clicking on all cylinders. If in the performance of my duties I’m negligent in terms of my worldly obligations, it is, for me, a necessary (even mandatory) state of affairs.
You want to know what life is like for a full-time, independent author?
Well, there it is.
In the pipeline…
Some publication news for you: as well as the novel, this year I’ll be working on a new edition of my very first book, a short story collection titled Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination. The collection was released back in 1990, the entire print run selling out in a matter of months. It’s virtually impossible to lay your hands on a copy of Sex and I’m going to address that by re-issuing it with a new cover, Introduction and Afterword. I’ll be formatting and correcting the manuscript this summer and will publish it through my Black Dog Press imprint either later this year or in early 2015 (the 25th anniversary of its original publication).
The new novel, meanwhile, is slated for a Spring, 2015 release.
Drop in for further updates as the year progresses.
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)
Awhile back I noticed that sales of the e-book versions of So Dark the Night and Of the Night had really flattened. No growth, which meant my best marketing device (word of mouth) wasn’t having much of an impact.
Then I came across a blog entry from a gal who had read the e-book of So Dark the Night and complained that its formatting was funky and created a number of annoying glitches. Not good news.
Not long afterward I learned about the ePub format, which supposedly renders text compatible with most tablets and reading devices. So I contacted my chum Daniel at Scribe Freelance and had him whip up ePub versions of both my “Ilium” novels and dispatched them to Lightning Source, instructing them to replace the old files with this latest batch. Now we’ll wait and see if this helps re-ignite sales.
I admit (eyes cast down) I’m a very poor self-promoter. As a publisher, I complain bitterly but as an author I won’t be moved. I leave it up to readers to discover my work and I’m absolutely convinced that once they do, they become fans for life. And only too happy to spread the word about this whacked out Canuck writer who defies all conventions, tackles every genre and has carved a different path for himself, independent of the mainstream.
I’ve sent out some review copies of The Last Hunt to some western-themed magazines but, honestly, does anyone read book reviews any more? In those few publications that still deign to leave some space for something as retrograde and uncool as books…
It can be disheartening. How do you draw attention to one particular title when the media is flooded with thousands of new releases (books, e-books, CDs, DVDs, games) every day? You begin to feel like a tiny, insignificant figure lost amidst all the others in one of those Where’s Waldo? books.
On the other hand, this tiny press has been responsible for some pretty fine books over the past twenty (+) years and my readership is growing, albeit very, very slowly. My wife reminds me that I’m always been a late bloomer…let’s just hope it’s not too late. At some point, I’d like to enjoy the fruits of my labor. Instead of getting pelted with them.
What I wouldn’t give to be able to make the “Grand Tour”—see all the great capitals of Europe, capping things off with a long-anticipated visit to Thermopylae.
But will it ever happen? Will my workaholic nature and bouts of agoraphobia allow such a scenario? I’m dubious.
If nothing else, it’s a helpful, distracting fantasy.
A possibility, however remote, that some day all this craziness will lead to better, happier times.
A golden age, yet to come.
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
I’m relieved to discover that this habit isn’t necessarily a manifestation of mental illness, nor is it unique in the world of the arts. I’ve read enough biographies and articles on authors to know that a good number of them have well-developed fantasy lives and often immerse themselves in their self-created environments, sometimes to the detriment of real world relationships and obligations. I think of writers like Ray Bradbury, P.G Wodehouse and and H.P. Lovecraft. For prolonged periods of time they take up residence in fictional universes, describing their journeys with such detail and depth that they seem almost like parallel existences, places we could visit if we took one wrong turn on a dark street or wandered off the path, into the endless forest.
I’ve devoted nearly four years of my life to conceiving, researching, writing and editing my novel So Dark the Night. Working on it every day, day in and day out, month after month after month. Frequently I’m in my office from 8:00 in the morning ’til 9:00 at night, coming out only to use the bathroom or gobble down a few quick bites of food. So fully inhabiting the city and environs where my two main characters ply their trade that at times it’s hard for me to fully re-emerge and engage with family and friends. Some days it’s absolutely spooky. I open up the door of my office and expect to see…what? The city of Ilium, home of my detective duo, a dilapidated former industrial center, hugging the shores of Lake Erie, long past its prime, presently in the midst of an accelerated decline. The dockland the repository for rusting hulks, bristling with abandoned gantries and infrastructure. The factories that once employed thousands now empty husks, ringed by concertina wire, patrolled by private security goons. The ground laced with heavy metals and toxins, poisoned for ten thousand years.
I see it so clearly in my mind’s eye.
Dunno about the other fellows but I confess to a preference for my imagined worlds, personal playgrounds where my my mind can roam, unfettered by the demands of mundane reality. When I shut the door to my office, everything on the other side ceases to exist. The phone is unplugged, the doorbell is ignored, nothing is allowed to break the spell. Music is the first step–sometimes an hour of howling metal or spacey, ambient stuff or track after track of Dylan. Depends on how I’m feeling.
–and then all at once I find myself sitting at my desk, pen in hand. I don’t remember how I got there or when I started writing. That’s the truth. So when I say “spell”, I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass. I can’t tell you how many thousands of words I’ve put to paper that have no clear origin; I looked down and there they were. And the process is as mysterious now as it was a quarter century ago. That’s the fucked up part. I’m no closer to understanding what it takes to create a successful work of prose or verse, even a single, melodic sentence, than I was when I first dared imagine myself a writer.
That’s why I take such offense at workshops and creative writing classes. You can teach someone basic grammar but you can’t help them create music with a few strokes of a pen. Sorry. Nor can you impart to your students the ability to absorb the pain and prolonged physical, mental and spiritual exertion the writing life demands from its (usually) unhappy acolytes. Basic compositional skills are empirical; a good ear for dialogue isn’t.
Writing is hard work, as hard as digging ditches or mining coal. That is, if you’re doing it right. Putting words down on paper, that’s nothing. Arranging them so that the exact right one is in the exact right place…that is a feat of engineering on par with any building, bridge or monument from the present day to ancient epochs.
When I’m working, my focus is absolute, like a laser beam. Nothing else matters except that page in front of me. I am there and nowhere else. I see my characters’ faces, breathe the same air. A camera swooping and dipping, discreetly recording the scene that’s unfolding. At such moments, it is temporal reality that seems entirely unconvincing and implausible.
Perhaps that’s why writers sometimes behave like such buffoons in the real world. We’ve forgotten social conventions and have no idea what constitutes appropriate behavior and language back on Earth Prime. I think of someone like Wodehouse, who cheerfully admitted to preferring the worlds he created to the real thing. Maybe that’s why he was gulled into those wartime radio broadcasts from occupied Paris for which he was so vilified. To his mind, they were harmless trifles…but to his countrymen across the channel, teetering on the brink of apocalypse, each syllable was treason.
Fantasy can beguile too.
Lovecraft was reclusive, a man who evinced little interest in worldly affairs, steeping himself in history and lore. More comfortable conversing in lengthy correspondences than face to face. His “mythos” an attempt to impose order on a civilization he felt far removed from. His attitudes, frankly, reactionary, which explained his fascination with the past and his fear of the things that might lurk just beyond his safe threshold, the darkness that yawned…
His writing is fevered, a cascade of obscure or archaic words, all in a vain (and overblown) attempt to describe the indescribable, put features and traits to things beyond human ken. The Lovecraftian universe is, even this non-fan must confess, a thrillingly imagined one, seemingly consistent and lavishly illustrated. For a considerable portion of his short life he resided in strange climes and, within the limits of his talent, did his best to describe the bleak and blasted vistas he saw there.
And then we have Bradbury…Raymond, the child-man. For Ray, the view from his window is pristine and richly coloured: small town Illinois, circa 1924. Memories of the cataclysm of war fading, a renewed sense of optimism surging through America, the first forebodings that an isolationist republic might have bigger, more ambitious aspirations on the world scene. An era of silent movies and loud jalopies; traveling circuses and lonely leviathans. White picket fences, dandelion wine and well-attended churches. In a second story bedroom, a child lies beneath clean, flannel blankets, blinking in the early Saturday morning light, listening to birdsong. In thirty years, this same child, grown tall and ramrod straight, will mount a silver rocket and blast off for the red sands of Mars…
Ray is all about nostalgia, a sense of what could/should have been. His ability to re-imagine a past that never was rivals that of Walt Disney–and I think it fair to say both are obsessed with bygone eras and far-flung futures and care not a whit for the present day. You gotta believe Ray has a rich fantasy life and I’d kill to be able to walk into one of his dreams.
Ray Bradbury’s stories are reflections of the man…just as Lovecraft’s tales reveal a twisted, inner psyche and Wodehouse’s lengthy canon a yearning for a well-ordered paradigm where the worst thing that can happen to a person is an accidental betrothal.
And as for me…hmmm. I think there’s a similar desire to impose some kind of cohesion or logic to a world I regard with more than a little cynicism and disapprobation. In the early part of my career, I wrote almost exclusively about characters who were somehow disenfranchised, powerless, marginalized. I approached those tales from the point of view of victims and that says something about my childhood and formative years. The fears that besieged and threatened to overwhelm me.
But in the past five years or so I’ve noticed that my characters have gotten tougher, taking control over their lives, no longer cowering in the face of their oppressors. And I think that change was accompanied by a great deal of healing as well as a better balance in my brain chemistry. At 46, except for the inevitable bad days (no one can avoid them), I’m feeling pretty good. Well enough that I can talk candidly about my secret places in a radio play like “The First Room“. No longer having to avert my eyes, try to think of anything but. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still as neurotic and nutty as ever, it’s just that I’ve come to terms with my inner loon.
I think my continuing survival is actually a very positive life lesson. If someone with my childhood, my psychological problems, my genetic history, can manage to make it this far, there’s hope for anyone. My writing saved and redeemed me and if you’re out there, dangling by a thread, there’s something for you too, something to pull you up from the precipice. Trust me.
And not only have I survived, I’ve thrived. Over the years I’ve taken on the roles of husband and father and that has equipped me with better coping skills and patience to deal with the frictions that are inevitable in any close personal relationship, no matter how loving and supportive. Those childhood fears and insecurities crop up in funny places and so does the anger, the rage of a kid who is powerless; a witness, an accomplice, a victim, a pawn of larger, darker forces.
I mentioned the bad days, those intervals where reason and balance seem to flee from me. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to (thank God) and the bouts of fury and despair are no where near as intense. I find myself raging against the small chores and obligations that are part and parcel of daily life, chafe at an off-the-cuff comment, smolder because some small, petty desire has been denied me. Until the feelings pass, I retreat to my office, read, meditate, listen to extremely loud music, waiting for the worst of it to be over.
These fits usually coincide with some “down time” in my writing, any period when I don’t have a big project in front of me. I simply have to be doing something every single day…or my mind begins to turn on me. Most people around me view me as a terrible workaholic, too driven and consumed by my calling; they don’t understand that it’s the writing that keeps my demons at bay. All those long hours I spend in that other place, the worlds I construct from memories, epiphanies and passing impressions. They sustain me, are a crucial article of my faith. Without that outlet…I shudder to think.
I’m not saying mine is necessarily a healthy lifestyle. I’ve read the reports that warn of the health risks of a sedentary existence; I definitely should get outside more, stretch and exercise. Often, when I’m really locked into a project, I forget to eat, barely aware of the passage of time. That can’t be good.
But I also know that because of the way I live my life–on my terms, with few accommodations to outside influences–I’ve managed to spend the last decade or so (for the most part) in a state approaching happiness. Is it a trade-off? I think so.
Without the ability to shut off the world and use my office as a portal to possibility, amazement, redemption and hope I would never have lasted this long. I truly believe my fantasy life is key to my continuing survival. When the stories run out, I’m finished.
I think the other fellows know what I’m talking about. I ponder the life of Ray Bradbury–I know he’s had some health setbacks and that has affected his legendary productivity. But at 90+ years, he’s still telling tall tales, even if someone else has to take dictation and type them up for him. Each day he commutes to that place where his visions dwell. His fortress of solitude. Sitting in a comfortable chair, barely able to see but hardly sightless. His gaze far, far away. In Green River or navigating the Valles Marineris; lost in a funhouse or at the helm of a gleaming rocketship, bound for the stars.
After all, nothing is impossible if we allow ourselves to think with the mind of a child. Experience has not yet affected one so young and no one can convince them that dreams can’t ever come true.
I know, it seems like I’ve had the moon on my mind since the beginning of the year. The whole 40th anniversary thingee really got to me for some reason. Made me ponder how much time has passed and (perhaps) how little time remains.
A busy, creative, exhausting summer and those 4 linked short stories grow ever nearer to completion. Stay tuned, I think this quartet of tales is going to make a definite impression on you.
But I decided to take this past weekend off, rest up, read a couple of books (both on Orson Welles, as it turned out) and build another plastic model.
And, sticking with the moon theme, the model I chose was the Heller Apollo 11 lunar lander. This is a none-too-detailed, cheapish reproduction of the fragile craft that took Neil and Buzz down to the surface of the moon…and back up again (to rendezvous with Michael Collins). Found it on eBay for a small stipend but it took me forever to set aside some time to put the bloody thing together. And I’ve got eight or ten other model kits in the basement, waiting their turn. Everything from an X-Wing fighter to a German zeppelin. Sheesh…
I set up on a table on our back deck–the weather for the past week has been perfect, clear and hot and not much in terms of a breeze. I got myself settled, arranged my parts and glue and paints and commenced work.
There were a few minor annoyances. First of all, none of the instructions were in English. Second, this model is quite small and that means small parts that resist and defy my clumsy, shaky fingers. I had…difficulties. Mainly with the struts. Oooo, those bleepin’ struts. I still break into a sweat when I think of them.
Sherron found me some terrific copper-tinted paint that went on thick, allowing me to apply a bit of texture, a convincing impression of the gold foil we see in pictures of the lander, a blaze of colour on the otherwise monotonously grey moon.
Finished the model and thought it needed a little diorama so I made one of some papier mache stuff Sherron had lying around. Spray-painted it while it was still wet, hoping to give a better illusion of the fine lunar regolith.
It’s not perfect but it ain’t half bad.
Have a look…and then sit down and tell me story about a model you built as a kid, a memory you treasure (or rue) to this day.
C’mon, don’t be shy…
I’m a Space Age guy, wired up wrong for the IT revolution that’s in the process of transforming our world into the inside of a video game. Me, I’m still stuck with Neil Armstrong on the Moon while the rest of modern civilization rushes toward The Great Singularity.
The Singularity is like the Rapture, dig, you get taken up, leave your earthly body behind and, like, evolve into a higher state. The difference is, with the Rapture you have to earn your way into heaven…the Singularity doesn’t discriminate. As long as your credit is good and you can afford the technology, you can spend the rest of eternity fucking Marilyn Monroe senseless in the honeymoon suite of the Hilton. Virtuality allows for limitless possibilities and is capable of reproducing any era, any conceivable reality. The interface between humankind and machines. The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?
Our family has finally joined the 21st century—yup, we now have a home internet connection, a computer on-line 24 hours a day. I’ve ducked and bobbed and weaved and tried my damnedest to avoid this day. So now we’ve got a window on the world, a valuable resource, an educational aid, a tool like no other in the history of the world—my question: when I turn the fucking thing on, what’s looking back at me?
But Sherron needs to get on-line because she’s doing her Master’s and the boys can use it for their homework assignments and research projects. And with all the weird, esoteric shit I put in my tales I can benefit greatly from access to the all-knowing, all-seeing Google.
Then again, it also means I can now spend hours fucking around on favourite sites like Senses of Cinema and Book Forum…or checking to see if there are any cheap plastic model kits for sale on eBay (don’t ask)…or “tag surfing”, looking for kindred spirits out there in cyberspace, posting comments on sites of interest, only looking up when I hear the boys’ bus stopping in front of our house after school…
What next? Cable TV? Stuck in front of the Space channel when I should be bending my brain on new fiction? Right now we have two channels and don’t feel we’re really missing anything. We, my family and I, aren’t the hippest people around. Not into brand names, fashions, trends. Big readers. About the only program we follow with any regularity is the new “Dr. Who” series. We’re completely out to lunch when it comes to what’s hot and what’s not.
Confession: I have no idea what’s on the bestseller list.
I can’t tell you one of the top-selling music CD’s or singles.
I don’t remember the last recent movie I watched. “300”? God, no wonder I haven’t seen anything since. The last new release I can remember liking is “Lord of War”. The opening title sequence of that movie is…stunning.
And these are not the least of my crimes:
I’ve never seen a single entire episode of “Lost”, “Amazing Race”, “Friends” or “The Sopranos”.
Have watched less than a nanosecond of “American/Canadian Idol”.
Reality TV? What the fuck are you talking about? It’s TV, dummy. None of it is real.
To those people who arrange their schedules around a beloved TV program or camp out overnight in front of their local theatre to be first in line to see the latest, greatest sequel of a sequel of a remake, let me ask you one simple question:
WHERE THE FUCK DO YOU FIND THE TIME?
There’s a line in a very under-rated little movie called “Those Lips, Those Eyes”. Frank Langella’s character is an aging actor, clearly talented but stuck in a shitty little touring company, playing to rubes. At one point he complains bitterly of his lot, shouting: “Time’s winged chariot is flying up my ass!”.
That’s the way I feel. I’m killing myself on this writing gig, going at it seven days a week, 6-10 hours a day, keeping up a murderous pace for months on end…and meanwhile looking over my shoulder, a la Satchell Paige, wondering what’s gaining on me.
You have to understand, the men in my family are prone to shortened life spans. And it isn’t the usual suspects—heart disease, cancer—that hand them St. Peter’s calling card. Oh, no. Details are hard to nail down; secrets are tightly kept in my family. It’s like an iron curtain descends. When you ask about what happened to Uncle So-and-So, dead at thirty-two, or cousin Fred, felled in his early forties, you receive unsatisfactory, even curt replies. “Lockjaw” or, just as likely, “Lepers got him.”.
And that’s it. No amount of questioning will pry loose anything more significant or helpful than that. “Some things are better left unsaid.”
It’s likely some old, half-forgotten scandal, a small nugget of shame but people act as if the government is involved.
Now, I happen to be a particularly morbid individual and so I look at this dismal track record (Burns male = early death) and I begin to consider my own circumstances. I’m forty-three, soon to be forty-four. What grim fate awaits me?
Will it be (reluctantly, through tightly pressed lips): “Furnace explosion”? “Spontaneous combustion”? “Gangrene”? The suspense is starting to get to me.
It’s too bad. I think I’d like to live to a ripe, old age. Work right to the bitter end. Celine finished the last draft of Rigadoon, told his wife he’d completed the book and died that evening. That’s the way I’d like to go…but it’s unlikely I’ll be that fortunate.
Allergy to book dust…
Bad paper cut…
Whatever happens, it’ll have to be sudden, unpredictable and utterly preposterous. After all, I have a family tradition to uphold…
* * * *
News and Updates
This blog has grown rather large and ungainly. There are plans currently afoot to organize it. Nothing will be lost, just a reshuffling of the deck, posts filed under their proper designations, the home page slimmed down. If you can’t find something, drop me a line and let me know.
Had a busy summer, lots of writing, a few stories, many prose poems, everything still pretty much in the first draft stage. Seem to be scribbling constantly but there isn’t any focus, can’t latch on to a project that really engages my faculties. Plenty of candidates, no clear favorites. Some of the projects I have in the bin require enormous amounts of research, time and energy that I don’t possess right now. The failure to find a publisher for So Dark the Night has damaged my confidence and I feel daunted by any project longer than two or three thousand words. I spent three years on a terrific thriller that I can’t get anyone to seriously consider.
Right now, So Dark the Night is under consideration at five different (very different) publishing houses, including Ace Science Fiction (New York), who have had the manuscript for over sixteen months. In all, I’ve contacted sixty-four (64) publishers and only a small handful agreed to have a look at it. Many begged off with form letters, saying they no longer considered unsolicited manuscripts. A few didn’t bother replying at all (despite the self-addressed, stamped envelope I enclosed).
Some good news though. Kelley Jo Burke, producer for CBC Radio’s “Gallery” program, bought my short story “Matriarchy”. It should air some time in the new year (I’ll post times and dates when I get the word). It’s a mainstream offering, set immediately after a funeral. I really love the story and it’s perfect for radio. Hope you’ll be able to tune in.
Also, miracle of miracles, someone actually accepted a poem of mine. You’ll find it at the Words on Paper site. Should take you about a second a half to read it. Go ahead, time yourself.
I note that Peter Watts didn’t collect the Hugo Award he so richly deserved for Blindsight. Peter really showed a lot of growth with Blindsight and I especially admired the way he was able to make the transition to the deep space environment (Peter’s an underwater guy, not of them thar physicist-hacks). Better luck next time, Mr. Watts…and there will be a next time, bet on it.
On a personal note, our albino hedgehog Ponyma is ailing. Yeah, I said hedgehog. You just knew we wouldn’t have conventional pets, didn’t you? We have two of the buggers, part rodent, part pin cushion. Low-maintenance creatures, I’ll give them that. And they both seem very devoted to my eldest son. Even after two years I still shriek like a high school girl whenever one of the things ventures anywhere near me.
Losing a pet is tough and I think it will hit my son hard. Death rearing its ugly head. He’ll be angry, wanting answers. What kind of God allows wonderful creatures, good friends to die? Tough one. But we’re a family, we’ll get through it. And, who knows? Maybe they’ll manage to convince me to accept another oddball pet into our oddball home.
Does anyone out there know where I can lay my hands on an armadillo? A platypus on the cheap? Call this number…
* * * *
I’ve been playing lots of music lately, accompaniment for my aimless scribbling. Faves right now include Interpol (they just released a new album, “Our Love to Admire”), Grandaddy (“Just Like the Fambly Cat”), Aqualung (“Strange and Beautiful” ), Wolfmother, White Stripes (“Icky Thump” and “White Blood Cells” ), Jesus and Mary Chain, Elbow (“Asleep in the Back”), Beck (“The Information”), Ministry (“Rio Grande Blood”), Audioslave (“Revelations”), Eels (“Shootenanny”) and NIN (“Year Zero”).
In terms of my viewing pleasure, I found a site where they archive TV shows and you can tune in for nuttin’. Finally got a chance to see “The Mighty Boosh” after hearing rumblings about it for ages. Great stuff. And “Black Books” is wonderful—Dylan Moran should be declared a national treasure. And then I couldn’t help myself…I watched the very first episode of “Land of the Giants”. For old time’s sake. And reacquainted myself with “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”, a show I’ve always found hilarious.
A friend of mine (hey, Mark!) was good enough to send us a compilation of the Quay Brothers short animated flicks and that was smashing. I’ve also recently developed a passion for the films of Henri-Georges Clouzot. I’ve seen his three most notable efforts, “Le Corbeau” (1943), “Wages of Fear” (1953) and “Diabolique” (1954). I’ll take this guy over Hitchcock any day, folks. Sherron and I also viewed Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring”—very powerful. Not as visually arresting as we would have expected (Sven Nykvist was his cinematographer, after all). The vengeance von Sydow’s character wreaks at the conclusion of the film renders him almost an elemental force. And then the miraculous finale…
An author should plug a few books: I finished Margaret McMillan’s account of Nixon’s 1972 trip to China and didn’t find it nearly as interesting as her previous effort, 1919. And, yes, I made it through the last Harry Potter book. Let me quote from the notes I scrawled afterward:
“Give the gal credit—Rowling brings back practically everybody for one final appearance, including the whomping willow and the Chamber of Secrets. Lots of battles and close scrapes—some of the magic of the movies has rubbed off on Ms. Rowling. Animated suits of armour leap off the walls and there are Star Wars –type firefights in the skies over England…The conclusion seems to go on forever, another byproduct of a clunky, rather tuneless book. Rowling is determined to get the job done, gritting her teeth and winding things up with a flourish, trying her best to satisfy Harry’s myriad fans and wash her hands of the whole thing.”
I guess you can tell I wasn’t impressed.
But I was impressed by Gerard J. DeGroot’s myth-busting take on the “real” story behind the events leading up to that great day in July, 1969, Dark Side of the Moon. I’ve been an astronaut buff for years but some of this stuff was news to me. Humankind’s greatest feat was achieved with the aid of Nazi war criminals (whitewashed for public consumption), the space race only an expensive diversion for successive adminstrations who couldn’t solve thornier issues like civil rights and poverty.
In my dreams, I’m the first man on Mars. I place my right foot on the dry, rust-coloured soil, making sure to leave a deep impression, an imprint easily visible to the folks at home. Settling my full weight on an alien land. Pausing, clearing my throat. “I claim this world in the name of the people of the planet Earth…and the corporate sponsors of this mission, which include WalMart, Sony, Compaq…”
Within five years there will be gigantic billboards on Olympus Mons.
The human stain, spreading ever outward…