I try to read at least a hundred (100) books a year but in 2020, due to various circumstances, I didn’t quite make that goal.
Ninety-three was the best I could manage; not bad, but still, c’mon, Cliff, you should be able to make it to the century mark. There was a roughly equal split between fiction and non-fiction and, as usual, my tastes were all over the place.
Here’s my “Best of…” roster for 2020 and, man, when compiling it I had to make some very difficult choices:
PROCESSED CHEESE by Stephen Wright
YELLOW EARTH by John Sayles
VANISHED BIRDS by Simon Jimenez
RED PILL by Hari Kunzru
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel
AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad
AUSTERLITZ by W.G. Sebald
RULE OF CAPTURE by Christopher Brown
METROPOLIS by Philip Kerr
PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf
GROWING THINGS (Stories) by Paul Tremblay
A CHILDREN’S BIBLE by Lydia Millet
PROVIDENCE by Max Barry
THE ASSAULT by Harry Mulisch
MAY WE SHED THESE HUMAN BODIES (Stories) by Amber Sparks
THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel
RABBIT FACTORY by Larry Brown
HITLER: ASCENT (1889-1939) by Volker Ulrich
POETRY FROM THE FUTURE by Srecko Horvat
SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND by Yuval Noah Harari
ON TYRANNY by Timothy Snyder
THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR by Svetlana Alexievich
IN TRUTH: A HISTORY OF LIES FROM ANCIENT ROME TO MODERN AMERICA by Matthew Fraser
CULT OF GLORY: THE BOLD AND BRUTAL HISTORY OF THE TEXAS RANGERS by Doug J. Swanson
CHURCHILL AND ORWELL by Thomas E. Ricks
THATCHER STOLE MY TROUSERS by Alexei Sayle
SONGLINES by Bruce Chatwin
ROAD TO LITTLE DRIBBLING by Bill Bryson
HOW THE SCOTS INVENTED THE MODERN WORLD by Arthur Herman
Our youngest kid has now flown the coop and we are, officially, empty nesters. The house seems damn strange without our boys pounding up and down the steps, blasting music or bellowing at their video games in their basement hidey-hole. The silence, as they say, is deafening. But they’re both ready to be out in the world, anxious to be on their own. They’ll have their tough days, intervals when it seems like the whole universe has lined up against them. But they’ll make it. They’re tough and resourceful and bloody smart. Which gives them a leg up in any society.
So we begin 2014, Sherron and I, somewhat sorrowful, missing the lads but eager to get on with the next phase of our lives; back to being a couple again, exploring the world together, seeing where our dreams take us.
I’m fifty years old, as of last October, and that’s also made a difference. I thought any change or transformation would be largely symbolic but turning fifty combined with our sons’ departure has put a whole new slant on things. I feel like another man.
To start with, I realize that more than half my life is gone and if I’m lucky I could have twenty or twenty-five healthy years ahead of me (with my genetics, that might be pushing it). That’s not a lot of time. As a result, I’m not going to waste any of it on stupid discussions, movies, books, music, feuds or anything that doesn’t further my pursuit of wisdom, joy and matters relating to the spirit.
I did a considerable amount of writing in 2013 (not unexpected) but I also found myself exploring other media, employing a variety of means to express myself. As a result, I created more visual pieces than ever before: acrylic paintings, charcoal drawings, lots of photographs, ambient soundscapes, even a short film. Will this trend continue in 2014 or were all these non-literary ventures merely an aberration? Experiments, nothing more.
We shall see.
I know that for some time I’ve occasionally experienced a certain amount of frustration with the limits of language and wish to communicate via non-narrative, non-linear means. Abstraction invites collaboration, interpretation, input from the audience/viewer. The vast majority of my visual work frustrates literal-mindedness—the equivalent of Rorschach Tests, shapes demanding speculation and discussion.
Not for everyone.
Obviously, one of the high points of 2013 was the release of my short story collection Exceptions and Deceptions. The book features what I think is our best cover thus far and includes a batch of stories drawn from the past fifteen years, a couple of them previously unpublished and available nowhere else. Every time I glance up and see it on my shelf, I get a tingle. Fans of Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Jonathan Carroll, Neil Gaiman take note: this one’ll rock your socks off. Trust me.
Another fun experience was collaborating with my son Sam on an instrumental number which he then incorporated into a short film for Sherron’s “Agassiz” mask/puppet production, debuting later this month. Sam’s film is a gem and as soon as he uploads it to YouTube or Vimeo, I’ll post a link.
Let’s see, what else…in November I was astonished to learn my volume New & Selected Poems (1984-2011) was shortlisted for a ReLit independent press award. My bizarre verse? Really?
Managed to read one hundred books in 2013, though at one point I didn’t think I’d make it to #80. A big surge in November-December put me over the top. The 100th book, completed December 30th? Italo Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun. What a way to finish off the year.
I’ve been noticing how much my reading tastes have changed over the past number of years—hardly any genre stuff these days, except for a bit of SF and the odd mystery/thriller by LeHane or Philip Kerr. Much less fiction, overall. Gimme a fat, juicy history book any day.
We don’t have cable, so we don’t watch television. Have no idea what shows are popular on the boob tube and couldn’t care less. Ditto with movies. By far the best movie I saw last year was Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio”. Haven’t heard of it? Tsk, tsk. Grab it off NetFlix, buy or rent it from Amazon, do not miss this flick.
Music? The new Queens of the Stone Age, as well as Nine Inch Nails (live), Steven Wilson, Mogwai, Benjamin Britten and Gene Autry’s Greatest Hits. Keepin’ it diverse.
Looking ahead: I’ll be working on my new novel, as well as prepping…ah, well, mustn’t give too much away. Let’s just say that Black Dog Press has a number of releases pending in the next eighteen months and there will be further information announced in the days to come.
All the best in 2014.
Thanks, as always, for dropping by and hanging out awhile.
Which always seemed like the perfect title for a porn film. But I digress…
Christmas approacheth and there is much to give thanks for.
First and foremost, my oldest son Liam returns from Brazil on Thursday; nearly four months away from home and hearth and, man, did we miss him. Having him back with us is the best Christmas present we could ask for. The tree is up and awaiting ornamentation, the Christmas CDs and (mainly) cassette tapes have been retrieved from the basement and dusted off. I know I have the reputation as being something of a curmudgeon but I love Christmas and there’s something about the holiday season that brings out the best in me. Even standing in a long lineup at the post office isn’t going to set me off (according to Canada Post, this is the busiest week of the year).
Other blessings of note doled out in 2012:
Three, count ’em, three new releases. Three books in one year? From me? That’s nothing less than miraculous. I’m delighted with all of them: The Last Hunt turned out far better than I’d hoped, a great story and a worthy addition to the western genre. I know I raised a lot of eyebrows when I announced I was working on a good ol’ fashioned horse opera, but I approached my task with seriousness and the respect of a true devotee. With the help of my father-in-law Ken Harman (a real, live cowboy) and folks like Lee Whittlesey, a superb historian and raconteur, I think I carried it off. Judging from the responses I’ve received, I’d say readers think so too.
The other two books are “Best of…” compilations of poetry and short prose. Stromata: Prose Works and New & Selected Poems. Both drawing from over two decades’ worth of material; slim, elegant volumes of surreal verse and prose poems. Beautiful, austere covers, powerful, intense material. I’m looking at them as I type these words and am still struck by what lovely tomes they are.
That’s the wonderful thing about being an indie author and publisher: I can supervise every aspect of my books’ creation, from their conception to their production and distribution. I even choose the margins and fonts, find the cover art. Etc. And I work with some great people, like my wife, Sherron, and my designer, Chris Kent, to ensure my books are as eye-grabbing, artful and evocative as they can possibly be. Check out my Bookstore page, see for yourself.
Shot, edited and scored three short films in 2012—have to admit, I’m most chuffed with “First Contact“, a surreal combo of music and images. Can you tell I’m a huge sci fi fan?
Also put together more of my ambient music, took lots of photographs, traveled more than I have in the past…
And the end of the year finds me plugging away on my next volume, a collection of short stories I hope to release in June or July, 2013. Already over 100 pages in and delighted by the diversity of voices, the unsettling and entrancing tales they tell.
Other then the expected sniffles and aches, we all stayed healthy in 2012—something else to give thanks for.
But I’m most grateful for my life, the freedom it affords me to follow my bliss, write in an atmosphere of peace and security, devote myself full-time to the task of creation. That’s what it’s all about. Birthing something that wouldn’t have existed, drawn breath, if it hadn’t been for your painful, protracted labor.
“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.” (Robert Bresson)
For me, no other existence will suffice. Without the ability to create, immerse myself completely in my invented worlds, I would wither away, cease to exist in material form. A thing more sensed than perceived, shadow-dweller, incorporeal yet still cursed with sentience, formless but denied the release of death.
I’m honored and privileged to lead the life I do. That’s something I must never forget or take for granted. I’m blessed and renewed by the knowledge that I’m serving some higher purpose, contributing (in some tiny way) to the Grand Design. Sometimes, when I’m at my absolute wits end, that’s my sole motivation for continuing to put words down on paper. That and the unqualified support and faith of my family. Whatever successes I’ve had are the result of the love and encouragement I’ve received, the sacrifices those closest to me have made to allow me such a fortunate existence.
For that and much, much more, thank you, to my family and friends, my readers…and my Creator.
Couldn’t do it without you.
Wouldn’t even try.
It’s an annual ritual, dating back more than two decades.
Right after Christmas I sit down and take stock of the past year, assaying it in terms of the quality and quantity of work I’ve composed, what I feel I accomplished and where I fell short. This assessment is rarely kind: I can be awfully hard on myself. On that point, I’m not alone:
“It is now sixteen years since my first book was published and about twenty-one years since I started publishing articles in magazines…There has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, and that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working ten hours a day on a book, or turning out four or five articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling.”
George Orwell wrote those words in a notebook he kept during the last year of his life. His heroic work ethic unquestionably contributed to his early demise; this fact is not lost on me. You can literally write yourself to death.
Cheery thought, innit?
But I’m not going to let my neuroses get in the way of celebrating a productive and creative year. Not me. No, sirree. I mean, I should be pleased with what I accomplished and a fair summary of 2007 would probably go something like this:
It was, to my mind, a year of retrenchment and learning. Retrenchment in that I finished a couple of longstanding projects and, re: the latter, thanks to my blog I got a real education as to the scope and limits of technology and came to a clearer understanding of the possibilities inherent in cyberspace.
I get the sense that during this past year I was tooling up, doing my utmost to marshal and focus my skills, honing them to razor sharpness.
Preparing for things to come…
The high points:
- In the early part of 2007 I completed final edits on Voiceworks. It’s a thin volume (71 pages), made up of 50 or 60 of my favorite monologues and short, spoken word pieces. The material is drawn from the past twenty years and includes offerings like “Cranes” and “A.I.” and a number of monologues from The Break (my one-act play).
- I finally put the finishing touches on my Redbook poetry collection (so named because of the red notebook I scribble the first drafts into). Sherron helped me paste it onto the background I wanted and it looks great. This one took a mere decade to whittle and pare into shape.
- Revised two older stories, fleshing them out and coming up with luvly new versions of “Adult Children” and “Matriarchy”. I especially treasure the latter and was pleased when CBC Radio producer Kelley Jo Burke picked it up for broadcast on “Gallery” (air date: October 27, 2007).
- Sewed up the movie deal for “Kept”, acting as my own agent and going through about twenty drafts of the contract with the increasingly frustrated producers and screenwriter. Used the Writers Guild of America’s model contract to help me restrict the option period, secure compensation for sequels and remakes, protect literary rights, etc. A time-consuming, frustrating, annoying, nerve-wracking process but it got done and now we’ll see what happens.
- I revised a few of the short stories from my venerable (1990) short story collection Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination. It gave me the chance to tighten up the prose and fix the last line of “The Cattletruck”, which never seemed right to me. The new versions are leaner, tighter, superior to the originals. Worth the weeks of murderous edits.
- In March, I finally heeded Sherron’s prompting and allowed her set up this blog. Beautiful Desolation. One of the smartest decisions I ever made. Started out as an experiment, a lark. And then it grew and grew as I added rants, commentaries, reviews, loaded on stories that hadn’t seen the light of day for years, an excerpt from the best unpublished novel kicking around (So Dark the Night). Presently, we find ourselves victims of our own success. Far more hits than we expected, people expecting new content on a regular basis—sheesh. So we’ve expanded the site and intend to utilize new publish on demand and podcasting technologies to…well, there are big plans afoot and we’ll leave it there. Stay tuned.
- But the absolute best thing to happen (writing-wise) in 2007 was undoubtedly finally summoning up the nerve to commence work on a longer effort, my novella “Of the Night”. Took every ounce of courage and willpower I had to stick with it but I did (thank you, Creator). You’ll be hearing more about this one in the months to come. Sherron loved the draft I gave her just before Christmas and I see big things ahead for this 160-page, 40,000 word beauty.
* * * * * *
When I actually list what I’ve done in the past 365 days, at first blush it seems like a pretty significant amount of work. What do you expect, I write every day, often failing to pace myself, working overtime to the detriment of my fingers, shoulders and back (to say nothing of my mental state).
But when I stack myself up against some of the truly prolific writers out there, I’m a time-waster, a lazy, itinerant asshole. Look at the sheer amount of titles folks like L.E. Modesitt, Kevin Anderson, Timothy Zahn or Robert Jordan can thrash out. These guys have bibliographies that would choke a fucking stegosaurus. How do they do it? I’m not talking about the quality of the work, I mean how can they physically produce that amount of prose, year after year? How can they put out so many pages a day when I can manage only a fraction of that while maintaining a schedule that sucks my strength down to the last dregs? How? How? How?
“What we write with difficulty is written with more care, engraves itself more deeply…”
Well, all right, granted, there’s that. The guys I just mentioned aren’t exactly literary stylists, straining to compose brilliant sentences, so lyrical they practically serenade you from the page. They’re hacks and their readers have minimum expectations when it comes to their work.
But what about authors like Anthony Burgess, Joyce Carol Oates and William T. Vollmann? They produce(d) a flood of pages every year and, for the most part, have secured their literary reputations and earned the highest awards in the land. Hugo, Balzac, Stendhal, Dumas pere et fils—huge canons, literary immortals.
It baffles me. Are they that much smarter, more efficient, better focussed than I am? While I struggle and grope for words, does the prose flow from their hands, whole chapters emerging fully formed, committed to the page with hardly a correction? Didn’t I read somewhere that Kevin Anderson dictates most of his books into a tape recorder and has them transcribed later?
My mind reels at the thought. If I did the same thing, the best I would likely manage would be a few constipated groans and a string of scatological profanities. And that’s on a good day…
I know it’s ridiculous to draw parallels between my career and that of other authors—everyone is unique, each of us a prisoner of psychology, circumstance and other factors harder to label and categorize. But the whole physical aspect fascinates me—I completed a good draft of my novella in about 3 1/2 months. I worked on that novel from the first week of September until Christmas, taking only 2 days off for Thanksgiving. 160 pages. Some of these fantasy fucks can excrete the equivalent over a long weekend. Knock out a novelization in a month or six weeks to help pay the rent….
(Long, drawn out sigh.)
But you knew me better than that…
I know…I’ll close off my last posting of 2007 by listing the things I’m grateful for, the people who remind me life is worth living and some of the stuff that redeems my boring and uneventful existence:
God. Yup, I’m serious. I am inspired and sustained and strengthened by the knowledge that my life, my work is serving the aims of a conscious, enigmatic Creator, an entity encompassing every square nanometer of our universe and a similar proportion of the other 10 dimensions currently thought to exist. So there.
Family. Couldn’t do it without you. Sher, boys, thanks for everything.
Friends. The people who care for me despite my long silences and busy schedule, who stick around despite my inattentiveness, who persist in believing in me against all evidence to the contrary.
Writing. Obvious, huh? But writing isn’t only about putting words on paper; it’s also prayer. It’s when I feel closest to my Creator—often, when my talent and resolve falter, something takes control and gets me back on track again. How many times have a looked up from a paragraph in wonder, not remembering having composed it? Those are the moments I live and pine for…
Books. I’ve repeatedly insisted the printed word saved my life and I mean it. God bless you Arthur Conan Doyle and Philip K. Dick and L. Frank Baum and William S. Burroughs and Cormac McCarthy and Homer and Franklyn W. Dixon…
Music. Soothes this savage beast like nothing else. Electronica, soundtracks, alternative, metal…and Glen Campbell singing “Wichita Lineman”.
Movies. Not as many as the old days, just not enough time. But doing my best to see some of the classics I’ve missed, discovering for myself the genius and vision of artists like F.W. Murnau, Tati, Georges Henri Clouzot and Val Lewton…
Sports. Every Saturday night (from September to June) finds me in front of the TV set, watching the nationally broadcast hockey game (a rite going back about, oh, 40 years or so). Whenever I can, I try to squeeze a few quarters of a CFL football game in between marathon revision sessions. I’m a frustrated athlete, if I died and could be reborn as anyone, it would be Joe Montana, two minutes left in the game, the ’Niners on our own ten yard line…
Radio. Old tyme radio dramas, CBC documentaries and features, BBC World Service…the possibilities nearly endless since we started piping in high speed internet. Radio Moscow anyone? NPR…
Art. Blame Sherron for this one too—every so often words fail me and only a visual image will suffice. Collage, acrylic paint, short films…over the past few years I’ve dabbled in just about everything. Sher’s a great teacher in that she does the best she can despite her student’s ineptitude.
Canada. I really do live in the best country in the world. I bag about the stupid cultural bureaucrats and the mediocrity I see all around me…but, cripes, I’m free to speak my mind, there’s nobody strapping a bomb to his ass and hopping on a bus behind me, nobody telling me what to think or say…my home and native land. I despair for it sometimes but I wouldn’t trade citizenship with anyone, anywhere.
You. Didn’t think I’d leave that out, did you? If you’re a repeat visitor or if this is the first time you’ve popped by—don’t matter, I’m grateful to you for seeking me out. The amount of “hits” this year surprised me and convinced me that there’s a potential audience out there, smart folk with an appreciation for good writing, good company and who appreciate (or, at least, tolerate) a certain amount of hyperbole and/or satire. Hang around because there’s more good stuff coming in 2008. A change in format, lots of new material including—
Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself again. But I’m really excited about what the next year will bring. I have a strong hunch 2008 is gonna be a good one.
And I sincerely hope it’s the same for you.