Last year’s trip to Europe will be pretty hard to top but I’m convinced we’ll manage.
Thirty-plus years together and every single day is still fun, the hours in your company a treasure beyond assaying.
We’re essentially very silly people. We laugh a lot. Two irrepressible clowns. Our humor definitely veering toward the strange and bizarre. “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, the Marx Brothers, Jacques Tati, “Team America”, and the bookstore gals in “Portlandia”. The sharper the satire, the more expertly the scalpel wielded, the more we like it.
Because if you start taking life too seriously, you quickly figure out, to paraphrase David Thomson, the world doesn’t really want to be saved. And that, as they say, is a mighty hard row to hoe.
Better to experience existence with a healthy sense of the absurd, gales of incredulous laughter, rather than tears of self-pity.
More than three decades of shared joy, passion, a long history of creative collaborations (including two terrific sons). Always seeking to inspire one another, egg each other on, pushing the envelope, aesthetically and spiritually and experientially.
We’re the damnedest couple. I’ve never met a pair like us, with so much obvious affinity and chemistry and yet two totally different, independent, strong-willed individuals. We’re nothing like clones, our differences can be quite profound. We’ve had some heated arguments and they haven’t always been resolved. Some are on-going and irreconcilable. Like your insistence that Justin Trudeau isn’t an airhead and humans are fundamentally good, wisdom and faith will prevail, offering a bright, shining future for our species…
What I most appreciate is your ferocious loyalty, the way you’ve supported me, my life’s work, from the moment we officially became a “couple”, recognizing and acknowledging the importance of literature to me, to my very essence. Never a flicker of doubt, despite some tough, trying times. We’ve had to sacrifice quite a bit, struggled financially to maintain my status as a full-time author and not once have you expressed any resentment or criticism.
There’s a line I sometimes quote from an otherwise forgettable Jack Nicholson movie, “As Good As It Gets”. At one point he says wistfully to Helen Hunt: “You make me want to be a better person”.
That’s it. That what you do, not just for me, but for everyone who comes into contact with you.
Thank you, Sherron. For all that we’ve shared, for everything still to come.
“Forever and ever…”
I suppose it’s understandable that young and developing writers mine personal experience for inspiration, borrow from real life for key characters, settings and episodes in their narratives.
But sooner or later, if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to abandon this rather narcissistic approach and begin to invent, extrapolate, imagine, conflate, collage, transpose. Eschewing a slavish imitation to the “facts”, finding the courage and tenacity to follow a story no matter what strange paths and nooks it might choose.
For a good many authors, the idea of leaving their safe, tidy, self-appointed microverse and venturing Outside is too terrifying to ponder. Their protagonists thinly disguised versions of themselves, storylines and essential details paralleling their own life arc. To these literalists, their writing is a chance at redemption, to make sure their viewpoint is somehow vindicated and wins out in the end. Writing is not an act of imagination, it is a form of exoneration. But is such a mindset healthy—for them or for literature? I would offer a firm “No”, on both counts.
I confess that on occasion I’ve written “autobiographical” stories, tales that include some detail or nugget from life, a small touch that adds to the overall atmosphere, a dab of authenticity. Other offerings contain what I would call “emotional truths”, characters reliving some trauma drawn from my convoluted psychological history. Primal terror, feelings of self-loathing and disgust; manic spasms of joy, rapid disillusionment.
I think of older short stories like “Invisible Boy” or “Carl” (from Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination). Raw and edgy. Spare and relentless and credible…and all the more powerful and frightening for that reason.
More recently, my novella “Second Sight” (from Exceptions and Deceptions) features a married couple that bear a strong resemblance to Sherron and I. If you want a semi-accurate portrait of what daily life around Casa Burns is like, check out “Second Sight”. Not a word of it is true, of course, but the couple at the heart of the tale have a depth and subtlety that take the offering to another level.
The unnamed narrator of my last novel, Disloyal Son, is a Canadian writer and some of his genealogy is borrowed from my family history, but Mr. X, candidly, is a lot nicer than me, much more passive and considerate. Yin to my Yang.
It could even be fairly said that I share some traits with my all-time favourite character, Evgeny Nightstalk (So Dark the Night). I certainly manifest Nightstalk’s ferocious loyalty and hair-trigger temper. His twisted moral code is like an externalization of my id.
But while there are definitely similarities, I would argue that none of these characters is really me—they’re all composites, Frankenstein monsters, a jumble of body parts. I made them up. In my humble opinion, working exclusively from real life is boring, not to mention lazy.
The art is in creating individuals and scenarios from dust and mud, shaping them with your own hands, breathing life into them with each word, each sentence.
On those rare occasions when I recognize that I’ve come up with something undeniably original and unique, there’s a thrill of joy and accomplishment that quickens my very soul. It’s the ultimate high. Nothing else I’ve experienced in my creative/artistic life compares to that peak moment.
So put away your diaries and journals, smash every mirror in the vicinity.
Time to write stories that defy expectations and conventions, yarns that even the author cannot control or confine.
Surprise us, amaze us, take us somewhere we haven’t been before.
Make us laugh and cry.
Anger us, if you have the nerve.
Show us a face other than your own.
My current iMac is six years old and hasn’t received a software update in ages. My operating system is, apparently, so old and slow that Skype and Dropbox no longer want anything to do with me and I have to run an old version of Yahoo mail because the Safari browser I use can no longer keep up. Worse yet, my BBC iPlayer has started cutting out on me—and, I’m sorry, but I can’t live without BBC World Service. Those terrific features and radio dramas.
So, with the help of our young pal Sean, knowledgeable in all things relating to the Apple brand and close personal friend of Tim Cook, I ordered a brand, spanking new iMac, with an operating system so fast, it comes precariously close to artificial intelligence. 27″ monitor, tons of memory…with Final Cut Pro installed.
Some of you may have seen my odd movies. Usually accompanied by my odd music. Well, thanks to Final Cut Pro, I can up my game, utilize various effects and get a more polished look. That’s the intention anyway. To improve, to get better, to develop as a creative person.
Disloyal Son is my tenth book and at this point in my career I’d like to take some time to explore other interests, like film-making and abstract, electronic music (I ordered a MIDI keyboard/synthesizer last week too). Writing will always be front and center in my life but I also have a hankering to express myself in other mediums, beyond the constraints of the printed word. I hope the end result will always be interesting but, I’ll tell you one thing, I guarantee it will be unique.
I’m not sure if I would call this an attempt to re-invent myself but I know that since my 50th birthday I’ve felt an increasing sense of urgency to spread my wings, expose myself to new experience. Change my wardrobe, put away some childish things.
The new iMac arrives tomorrow, the keyboard soon after. There will be a learning curve, especially since I’m something of a technophobe. Will my files transfer from my old machine without a glitch? Will anything be lost? Will this wipe hours of music from iTunes? Etc. etc.
But for the most part I’m excited to have the opportunity to employ all that fantastic technology: new tools to paint visual and aural pictures, strange narratives that haunt and bedevil, manifestations of my mischievous mind.
More to come...
My wife is pretty clever.
She snapped a picture of me while I was outside, on our back deck, trying out some wax crayon thingees she gave me. You can use them as regular crayons or take a wet brush and smear the colors on, like watercolors. Very cool. It was fun to play around for nearly 4 hours, totally oblivious to everything except the mosquitoes (bastards!). Didn’t keep the finished work, quickly shit-canned it as an interesting failure.
I was much happier with three chalk pastels I completed a week or so ago. Those I plan on getting framed…and then hiding them behind my chair in the office. My visual stuff definitely not for everyone. Call me an enlightened amateur. An idiot with a smidgeon of savant. I don’t claim to be one of those Renaissance men, equally capable in a variety of disciplines. I’m definitely a one-trick pony—a wordsmith and dang proud of it.
But every so often I have to get away from WORDS. I’ll go out and snap some photos or shoot some footage with my palm-sized digital camera. Assemble a weird collage, paint something semi-representational on an old board. Create some strange ambient music.
The end results aren’t always stellar, frequently they’re downright godawful. But they’re helpful exercises, stimulating different parts of my brain than I usually employ when hard at work on a novel or short story. These interludes also allow me a chance to play, something much under-valued in this day and age. Spending a few hours on something completely non-productive, entirely without aesthetic or commercial value, making a mess, being silly, whatever you want to call it.
Today was a welcome break for me and, as you can see from the picture, I was utterly enthralled.
Usually in vain.
I’ve described my writing “career” as something of a train wreck and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. I lurch from project to project, with absolutely no conception of how to “market” or promote myself, zero interest in shilling for my work, peddling it around like an itinerant vacuum cleaner salesman. My writing doesn’t comfortably fit any niche, veering from genre to genre, encompassing everything from radio plays, to short films, ambient music and spoken word pieces. My last two novels were supernatural thrillers, my latest is an old fashioned western. Huh?
But that’s the glorious thing about the new technologies that have sprouted up in the past few years. They allow creative types to try their hand at a variety of disciplines, expressing themselves through different media. I don’t discriminate between my various projects, no matter what form they take. They all reflect my interests, fears, fixations and dreams. They all originate in the labyrinthine depths of my mind.
* * * * * *
Thanks to one and all who have stuck it out thus far. Popped in to this site for a quick look…and then lingered, read more and more of the entries, downloaded big swathes of my writing or tuned in to some of the weird music I’ve made available for free listening and downloading.
Through this blog I’ve become familiar with good folks and sharp thinkers. Thoughtful, intelligent people who love the printed word as much as I do.
And I believe that somewhere among the tens of thousands of curious types who’ve visited this blog in the past 4 1/2 years there is at least one ideal reader, someone who has followed my career, read the lion’s share of my oeuvre and eagerly looks forward to each new release. That’s the gal/guy who brings me back to my desk, morning after morning, my raison d’être, my secret admirer, number one fan and staunchest defender. Every day I sit down and create purely for the purpose of entertaining, surprising and intriguing my I.R., presenting them with a narrative or tune or spoken word piece that startles them and causes them to re-appraise my work (yet again), examining it in a wholly different light.
I am prepared to go to any extent to unsettle and shake up my Ideal Reader. I don’t want them getting complacent, taking me for granted. For that reason, my work must never fall back on tried and true formulas or reinforce commonly held beliefs and preconceptions.
I have to to believe my I.R. would be very disappointed in me if I resorted to such tactics.
My Ideal Reader is as courageous and aesthetically demanding as I am.
And they’d know if I wasn’t giving them my best work…
* * * * * *
It’s become something of a custom for me to either release new work or make some kind of announcement around my birthday.
First, please note to “self-portrait” that accompanies this post. A couple of Christmases ago, Sherron and my sons gifted me with a big fat scrapbook that I was supposed to play with; included among my tasks was executing a self-portrait on canvas. Last month I finally got around to it and, well, see for yourself. I have absolutely no acumen for visual art, couldn’t even figure out how to mix pigments—that’s why my picture is in black and white.
Okay, so I’m no threat to Vinnie van Gogh.
How about another strange, spacey, ambient tune, created a couple of days ago. “Lapse (II)” clocks in at over seven minutes and I think it’s a worthy addition to my odd musical catalog.
And, finally, a couple of updates:
Edits on my western, The Last Hunt, commence soon. Looking forward to knocking that little beauty into shape. Anticipating a March, 2012 release date. I’ll keep you posted.
My science fiction novelette, “Eyes in the Sky“, should be up on Amazon/Kindle in the coming days. It’s dedicated to “the Golden Age” and I think fans of the genre will understand what I mean.
No plans for my birthday, just another work day. Forty-eight years old and maybe a tad wiser. Still a long way to go and enlightenment continues to tease and then elude me. Every time I think I’m getting close to some kind of meaningful insight into the human experience, something truly ghastly and horrific happens and I am forcefully reminded of the Alain Finkielkraut quote:
“Barbarism is not the inheritance of our pre-history. It is the companion that dogs our every step.”
It’s small…and getting smaller.
Part of it is natural attrition: people grow away from each other or their lives becomes too busy or what have you. Or they die.
I’ve lost good friends, men and women I’ve been closely associated with more than two decades, for all of the reasons just stated.
Others I’ve shed. Deliberately, ruthlessly. With knowledge aforethought. What can I say? You cross me and I can be a real bastard.
I’m the first to acknowledge that it ain’t no easy chore being my friend. The long silences no doubt grate. And you know I hate, hate, HATE talking on the phone. The telephone is an infernal device, the only thing left that can really threaten my concentration. If a phone rings anywhere in my house between 9:00 a.m. and 4:30 (when someone else will be home to answer it), I immediately explode into a string of expletives that would melt the ears off a plastic dashboard Jesus. Interrupt my work and you run the risk of being murdered. It’s that simple. God help the poor fucking telephone solicitor who breaks my train of thought. Perhaps that’s why so many calls are automated these days. People like me were traumatizing employees. Whose lousy pay offered poor compensation for the frequent tirades and threats they endured, their headsets smoking as they fumbled for “disconnect”…
I don’t do small talk, couldn’t give a fuck about the latest movie you’ve seen or book you’ve read or the gorgeous autumn walk you just enjoyed. Dig? I. Don’t. Care. If you got any thoughts or observations, stick ’em in a 100-word e-mail and zip it my way. I’ll get back to you within 48 hours. That’s a pledge. E-mails allow me to keep in touch on my time and terms. It is the perfect platform for a busy curmudgeon. It is the only form of communication I welcome.
And, of course, when I do get together with my friends they have to put up with my admittedly caustic wit and, let’s be honest, rants on my new favorite pet peeve or a long lecture on Gnosticism and the novels of Philip K. Dick. Amazing how, at once, a person can be both boring and a boor. I manage it quite easily.
I have a natural compulsion to entertain, to be the center of attention. I’m capable of saying almost anything, the most provocative and cringe-worthy statements, refusing to recognize the fine line between satire and offensiveness. I despise political correctness; watching our tongues and minding our manners like good little Stalin-era proles. Fuck that.
Nights out with me are rare but they’re usually memorable. Just not for the right reasons…
For the most part I enjoy being alone. Very comfortable with silence and solitude. I don’t require company or diversion. I’m doing something creative literally every single day of the year and I simply don’t have much time for other things. When I’m not working, I’m with my family. If I’m not doing either, I’m sleeping. That’s pretty much the schedule around here. The reality you have to adapt to if you’re going to remain in the picture longterm as a pal and confidante.
There’s one other thing and this is important: you wanna be my friend, you gotta read my work. Every single word of it. Read it, listen to it, hold an informed opinion on it. Having any conversation with me and not alluding, however briefly, to my raison d’etre, my entire purpose for existing on this planet, is like slapping me in a face with a sock full of canned ham. You don’t recognize the central role writing plays in my life and respect the enormous amount of time and effort I expend on putting words on paper, you ain’t no friend. You might be an acquaintance, a chum, but you sure as fuck ain’t part of the inner circle. You’re somewhere out in the Oort Cloud, a distant signal, a far point of light.
I fully recognize that these are hard terms, entirely one-sided and solipsistic. But the closer I get to fifty I’ve become less and less tolerant of superficial relationships and part-time pals. And, unfortunately, I live in a pretty remote locale so there’s little chance of mingling with fellow writers and artists, who would have a better grasp of my obsessions and the demons that relentlessly drive me. My wife and I have talked about moving to a larger center, where there are more opportunities to take in good movies, enjoy a cultural evening out. With our boys getting older, a year or two from heading out on their own, it might be time to seriously ponder a change of address. We’ll see.
Whatever happens and wherever I live, creativity and the compulsion to express myself will remain my primary focus. Unless my brain is fully preoccupied with a project or artful experiment, I become bored, restless. Dangerous. If it’s frustrated or annoyed, a mind like mine can quickly turn on others…or itself. It rages fearfully. Vindictive and brutal, refusing to forgive the slightest fault.
Believe me, it’s a good thing I’m such a workaholic. It’s better for everyone involved. Those long silences mean I’m deeply and happily immersed in a book or story or short film.
Be sure to ask me about it the next time we run into each other.
I’m always happy to talk shop with a friend.
When faced with the slightest possibility of success, it’s a cinch I’ll fuck things up. I literally can’t help it. It’s something innate, some errant strand of DNA they somehow missed when they were mapping the human genome.
Back in 2003, PS Publishing, Peter Crowther’s fine British press, released my book Righteous Blood. Righteous Blood is composed of two novellas, tales very different from each other but both continuing my exploration of the nature and source of contemporary evil. It’s a particular bug bear of mine. Like most of my work, the novellas are very visual and cinematic and they attracted some interest from folks who wanted to adapt them into movies. Good news, you would think. But was I doing cartwheels when I signed the option agreements, was I swaggering around like Al Capone on February 15th, 1929?
I hate the movies being made today. They’re dumb, unsubtle and tasteless. Directors have the aesthetic sensibilities of Koko the gorilla and screenwriters are more influenced by video games and TV than literature and consider the Star Wars movies to be the epitome of cinematic excellence.
That said, the chap writing the screenplay based on “Living With the Foley’s” is a nice lad and professes to be a fan of my work. He’s been trying to put together some kind of a production deal but these things take time. This past year his agent contacted me, wanting an extension for three years and promising some dough, not much but enough to buy winter tires and ease some of our credit card load.
I barely gave him the time of day. I was involved with a new project and didn’t want to expend the effort required to look at contracts or talk money. Wasn’t that interested, to be honest. I’m like that—I never look back at old projects; that’s yesterday’s news as far as I’m concerned. The agent got very frustrated with me. When he called a second and third time I still hadn’t read the contract and seemed eager to be rid of him. The whole thing grew quite tiresome and after blowing him off a number of times, I finally signed the contract just to be done with it. My total lack of enthusiasm made me look like a complete asshole. Made no friends there and I’m not expecting an gold-embossed invite to the film’s grand opening, should it ever come to that point (I doubt it will).
It was worse with my second novella, “Kept”. The guy who secured rights for “Kept” talked the talk, claiming he’d written a great script (I still haven’t seen it) and that a major production company was chomping at the bit. When the time came to re-up or let the option slide, the guy was late. Months late. I was busy but I noted the slip in passing. He finally did get his extension but then things got weird. My original contract stipulated that I would retain most rights, including literary, and I was to be paid a percentage, based on the final budget. About four months ago, Mr. X had his Hollywood lawyer call me and offer a new contract, one that would pay me a flat fee and, on top of that, scoop up all rights, including (according to my reading) those aforementioned literary rights. I was pissed. This was utter bullshit. I cursed and fulminated, used the kind of foul language one might hear in the locker room of a football team on the wrong end of a lopsided score. Very ugly. Then I quadrupled my monetary demands. Lots of spluttering on the other end of the phone.
“You can’t do that!” the lawyer, who claimed to be an ‘artist-friendly’ kind of guy, barked.
“I’ll see. I’m sure we can get you back your literary rights.”
“You’d better. But the deal stays the same.” I named my inflated figure again.
“They won’t do it,” he groaned.
“Then fuck them and fuck their mothers,” I snapped.
And that was that.
There hasn’t been any further contact from those folks and I don’t expect there will be. I could’ve pulled back from the brink, negotiated…but something wouldn’t let me. A nasty little voice that I’ve come to know very well over the years…
* * * *
Because there have been other lapses in tact. I’ve lost out on anthology appearances because I wouldn’t allow editors to make the smallest changes. Rebuffed them in the crudest language imaginable, insulted their intelligence, slapped them silly when a simple “No” would have sufficed. Turned off influential people with that whole “my way or the highway” routine. Producers, editors, publishers… how many of them have read James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, how many require a spell-checker to write a grocery list? These people are fuckheads and I refuse to lie down with pigs and–
Jee-zus. I guess what it comes down to is I’m a control freak. No one has the brains and talent to touch my work except me. It’s a dumb, stubborn, ridiculous attitude, suicidal as far as my career goes but (you can’t see me but I just shrugged helplessly). I’d apologize but it would be like apologizing for being six feet tall and having long, skinny feet and a devastating right hook. It’s just who I am.
Besides, real men don’t compromise.
“Great will be your glory if you do not lower the nature that is within you.” That’s from Pericles, the Athenian soldier and statesman.
When Xerxes, the Persian king, sent an emissary to Thermopylae, demanding that Leonidas and his fellow Spartans lay down their weapons, Leonidas famously replied: “Come and get them.”
Another of my many sins: I carry grudges for a long time. If you’ve fucked me over and we run into each other even twenty years from now, watch out. I’ll tear your head off if I get half a chance. Try to steal credit for one of my stories, bad-mouth me and I catch wind of it, I’ll eat your living heart like a fucking Aztec.
I come from a long line of thugs and bully boys, Scots brought to Northern Ireland by Cromwell to slaughter Catholics. And we were bloody good at it too.
With that kind of lineage, I’ll likely end up broke, hump-backed, unknown, living in a stinking, tarpaper shack.
But above the rough entrance of my hovel will be the stanza from the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem I’ve had posted over my office door for as long as I can remember:
“The shame I win for singing is all mine,
The gold I miss for dreaming is all yours.”
Postscript: This is a shorter, nastier version of my essay “Solace of Fortitude“, which can be found in the Non-Fiction section of this blog. Mea culpa, mea maxime culpa…