It can be a somber, sobering process, this kind of self-evaluation, and, inevitably, I get around to my writing.
Thirty years as a professional author and not much of a dent made. Black Dog Press, my imprint (described as a “micro-press” on my Saskatchewan business license) barely scrapes by. It’s no coincidence that I usually publish my titles in the early spring, right after the annual check from the Public Lending Rights folks arrives. It just about pays for each new release.
And let’s be honest, my books sell very modestly; outside a small coterie of readers, I am virtually unknown. I sent out something like 45 copies of my last book, Disloyal Son, to newspapers, magazines, assorted literary folk, receiving precisely three polite acknowledgements and no reviews. Not one. One mystery magazine emailed me, thanking me for sending a copy their way and offering to sell me a full-page ad that could maybe/possibly run in the same issue as the review (hint, hint). I didn’t have money for the ad and they didn’t end up publishing a review. It’s the way things work these days. Kirkus Reviews? Publishers Weekly? For the right price you can commission a four-star review and laudatory blurbs…never mind that no one has even glanced at the book in question.
Publishing is a dirty business, there’s no denying it.
And it’s hard to stay positive, to keep on keeping on, when you know the deck is stacked, the marketplace flooded with a quarter million new releases every year, a clammer of dissonant voices begging to be heard, a hellish, caterwauling chorus.
But it’s the work, that joyfulness I feel when everything is clicking, sentences and paragraphs almost being dictated to me, that’s what makes it worthwhile. As long as I’m able to put pen to paper, as long as those words don’t dry up, inspiration fleeing from me, I think I can endure almost anything.
Creation is everything to me. As soon as I’m done a project, I’m ready to move on, tackle another challenge. And that’s why I don’t spend much time mourning the poor sales of my last novel or short story collection, or grind my teeth down to the gums as I watch their rapid plummet to the bottom of Amazon’s sales rankings. Those four-dollar royalty checks? Hey, bring ’em on.
Just…keep the words coming. In good times and bad. Darkness and light. Ecstasy and despair.
Anything but that screaming silence.
Seven cartons, containing 160 copies of my novel Disloyal Son were deposited on my doorstep mere days ago. Not long afterward, my brand new 27″ iMac was delivered, unboxed and set up.
I was fortunate, ladies and gentlemen, because for the last couple of years I’ve been backing everything up on an external drive. When I had problems transferring files from the old Mac via ethernet cable to the new model, I called Apple Support and outlined the situation. When the Apple guy heard the age of the software in my source Mac, he whistled in dismay. Bad sign. He wasn’t too sure exactly what to do…until I mentioned that external memory. He sighed, relieved. No problem. Dump the ethernet cables, plug the external directly into the new Mac and voilà. Mission accomplished.
But let this be a lesson to anyone else out there running an obsolete operating system: that external memory was (at $125) one of the best investments I ever made. Saved me a huge headache. Think about it.
There have been a few minor glitches but so far I’m impressed by this new monster. Can’t wait to give it a real test drive. Unfortunately, the MIDI keyboard/synthesizer I ordered is still en route and I don’t have the nerve to tackle Final Cut Pro yet. So I’ll bide my time. Meanwhile, try to get acclimatized with the larger screen, slightly different configurations, the peculiarities of its machine brain.
Spent a couple of days tidying up this blog, updating some of the pages, slimming things down a little. I’m a bit taken aback by the sheer amount of fiction, music and even short films I’ve uploaded here over the years. It’s quite the hoard of strangeness. Sherron says it’s time for a new theme and I suppose she’s right. Still want to keep the picture, though. I find it…haunting.
I’ve been flashing copies of Disloyal Son around town, pleased by how taken folks are with the cover. People wanting to know how to pick it up, where to order. Answer: everywhere…but, preferably from your nearest independent book store (McNally-Robinson, Powell’s, etc.).
Weird how everyone responds to the book’s central theme of family secrets. Think I’ve hit on something here, purely by accident. I’m getting goosebumps and the hair on my arms is standing up. Maybe because of close proximity to the zeitgeist.
Now, whether that will translate into some decent book sales, who knows? Hard to tell in this era of shapeshifting-sado-masochistic-paranormal-romances.
Ay yi yi. What will they think of next? (No, please, don’t tell me, it’s probably better if I’m not privy to that information.)
But we forge on, boats against the current and all that.
I remain convinced that there are still smart readers out there, a small but devoted demographic desperate for a transformative experience when they open a book.
They want to believe in magic and too often are poorly treated by contemporary scribblers.
Here at Black Dog Press we offer something different, an intelligent alternative to corporate publishing.
Books for bibliophiles and devotees of the printed word.
Written and published with love.
Or maybe that should read: reverence.
I’m a superstitious sod, rarely discussing works-in-progress, except obliquely (even with my wife). If I jabber about a book or story too much, part of me believes I’ll somehow “jinx” things and said offering will wither and die on the vine. So I play things close to the vest, wait until the project has achieved a highly polished state before I finally heave a sigh of relief and officially announce that something new is on the way.
And so it is with my latest novel, Disloyal Son.
Subtitle: A False Memoir.
This one took my wife by surprise. I spoke of it only in generalities, alluding to some of the history and background my research was turning up. When I finally handed her a finished draft the end of June (2014), she had a vague notion that the book had something to do with my father, the fibs he told us, family stories and rumors we heard as children about the mysterious deaths of two of his brothers…
But I think it’s safe to say Sherron was shocked when she opened the manuscript and discovered…a mystery novel. It took her awhile to adjust her thinking; she expected something much more personal and intimate, along the lines of my radio play “The First Room” (broadcast on CBC Radio some years ago).
The problem with treating the book as a memoir is that at some point I would have to make an appearance—and, frankly, I can’t think of a less interesting person to incorporate into my work. (In that sense, I differ from many writers I can name but, soft, let us move on from that contentious point…)
Nope, it was my determination right from the beginning to approach my father’s shameless falsehoods, his brothers’ deaths, as a fiction writer would, solving those aforementioned ancient mysteries with the tools and techniques of a storyteller. The central character is an author about my age but he’s more of an alter ego than a stand-in; a doppelganger living a parallel life, a “might have been”.
The whole book is a gigantic “what if?”.
But it’s something else too…because there are little truths and facts scattered throughout, bits of family lore my mother and sisters will get but no one else will. Despite my efforts, there’s perhaps more of me in this book than I intended.
What Disloyal Son is really about is the toxic effect secrets and sins can have on a family, people generations removed from the actual events but still feeling the ripples. The novel is a work of fiction but I think many out there will understand that the themes it addresses have a great deal of relevance to those who live in the shadow of childhood trauma or whose lives have been damaged by a legacy of lies and deceit.
Terrible things go on behind closed doors, many unpunished crimes, including assault, rape, even murder. Whispered about at family gatherings but, for the most part, swept under the carpet. Scarcely alluded to but not forgotten.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds and that’s why the narrator/central character of Disloyal Son is so determined, despite his family’s opposition, to deal with their dark past and uncover the truth about events that took place nearly four decades ago. His efforts lead him deeper and deeper, until he realizes there are actual skeletons in the family closet, the reality far grimmer than he imagined.
That’s all I’m prepared to say about the story line, at least for the moment—I really hate spoilers.
So…a “false memoir”.
First it was dark fantasy, horror, science fiction, poetry, mainstream literary, a tale set in the Old West…and now this. How the hell am I supposed to draw any kind of readership if I keep shedding skin like a fat snake? No wonder editors and agents shy away from me and even long time fans scratch their heads in confusion and dismay.
No apologies forthcoming from this end. Not a chance. Disloyal Son is a page-turner, a crime novel with the pacing of an Elmore Leonard yarn. Unputdownable. Featuring well-drawn characters, sudden twists and turns and a resolution you absolutely will not see coming. I can’t tell you how pleased I am with the way it turned out—talk about exceeding expectations.
Currently, Sherron is in the process of proofing the manuscript and we should be getting the cover and text files set by the first of April. May Day, 2015 is still our intended release date. I’ve done a couple of mockups for the cover design, which I’ll be passing on to my cover guy, the irreplaceable Chris Kent. And we’re welcoming aboard a new interior layout person, Jana Rade, who runs Impact Studios and comes with stellar recommendations. Hoping for a very smooth and glitch-free production this time around. C’mon, team!
I’ll be “leaking” the cover in mid-April and, meanwhile, devising a much more aggressive advertising and promotional campaign for Disloyal Son. Plugging my books has always been a problem for me—basically, once a book is done I seem to lose interest in it and the only thing I can think about is starting a NEW project, something to get the creative juices flowing again. But my writing deserves better than that and one of my resolutions this year was to devote more time and effort to raising my profile, letting people know I’ve got ten terrific books in print and that over the past thirty years as a professional author I have produced an intelligent and original body of work in a variety of genres. A literary therianthrope.
Watch for my latest offering, Disloyal Son, in a few short months.
It’s gonna rock your world.
That kind of longevity, in any vocation, is pretty rare, but when it comes to the arts? Writing? Are you kidding? It either shows tremendous faith, an overweening ego…or the simple acknowledgement that there’s nothing else I’m any good at. Or all of the above.
Over the past three decades, I’ve witnessed a lot of changes in terms of technology, trends, the way the publishing business is run. Hell, I’m so old, I can recall a time when it wasn’t embarrassing to call yourself a horror writer and John Updike and Ray Carver represented the high bar in terms of American literature. Jesus, where’s my cane and adult diapers?
In that interval, I’ve seen ’em come and I’ve seen ’em go. One-hit wonders, lighting up the sky like a rogue comet and then exploding, leaving not the slightest trace of their passing. The darlings of the critics and cultural poobahs, earnest scribblers telling their very personal stories of suffering and courage and redemption, seeking applause and acclamation the way a junkie probes for a fresh vein. Their offerings winning all the literary prizes, earning highly coveted media attention, getting their names in lights. Hooray!
Except…where are they now?
I won’t name names (that would be cruel) but how many highly touted scribblers have popped up during my 30-year tenure, sucked up some attention (and sometimes a considerable amount of money) and then faded away? Check out the prize lists since 1985—Pulitzers and Bookers and GGs and Gillers, right down to the regional level: how many of those names are still prominent today, still producing quality work?
Exactly. I’d have to use a quantum calculator to determine the number of “bold new talents” and “exciting voices” that have come down the pike in my professional lifetime. It’s an annual rite, like checking to see if Wiarton Willy can spot his shadow. Never mind that the vast majority of the “stories” these bright, young things are telling are very much their own: fictionalized accounts of their journals and diaries, their pathetic lives laid bare. A love affair gone bad, tender hearts cruelly broken; often one detects a faint whiff of revenge. The only problem is, when you write solely about yourself, sooner or later the material grows stale…or runs out all together.
Which is why the latest “next Margaret Atwood” or “next ______” (your favorite literary icon here) invariably lasts one or two books and is never heard from again.
I’m reminded of the old song that goes: It don’t mean a thing/’til you prove it all night.
True, I think, for any worthwhile endeavor.
The creative life demands a special kind of courage and commitment—it requires a soul-defining leap of faith because there’s no guarantee you’ll be successful, very little chance of your work achieving posterity. Many superb artists have died broke and unknown.
But those who are truly chosen don’t give a whit for fame and fortune, they create for the sheer pleasure of knowing that they are working without restrictions or outside expectations, designing and shaping their efforts to their own specifications and aesthetic purposes. They’re not trying to emulate someone else or jump on a popular bandwagon. Their visions may be personal, unprecedented, bizarre (by popular standards), but there’s a shining brilliance to them, helping them achieve a universality that makes them accessible to people of vastly different geographies, even epochs.
Think Homer. Sophocles. Poe. Baudelaire. Kafka. Picabia.
Authors who defy convention, risk penury, disapprobation, despair.
Vasili Grossman and Friedrich Reck, writing in the face of discovery, imprisonment, death.
And yet they persevered.
So you’ve written a clever poem, a halfway decent short story, posted it on your blog. Six people have “Liked” it. Good for you.
Are you prepared to sit down tomorrow and the next day and the day after that…until your allotment of days run out? Writing and re-writing, driving yourself to distraction trying to achieve quality, well-crafted prose. The search for improvement, perfection never ceases. I’ll testify to that.
I’ve been in this biz a long time, much longer than most, and it’s still hard, still a challenge every day to summon the courage to walk into my office, plunk myself down and commence work on my latest writing project. As I’ve gotten older, my standards have risen and so the act of composition has become even more challenging and immersive than it was when I first started out. In other words, it doesn’t get easier, kids, it gets harder.
Dreaming about writing doesn’t get you there, promising yourself that you’ll start something serious in November, when National Novel Writing Month rolls around, won’t cut it either. If you’re a writer, a real writer, you can’t wait. As much as the chore of writing depresses and intimidates you, you can’t resist reaching for a pen and putting something down on paper. Anything to fill that blank page, defeating the white silence. Only then is there a sense of fulfillment, completion, our purpose for existing realized.
How does that gibe with your experience?
Are you a dabbler? A hobbyist? A wannabe?
Or do you have the courage to take a great leap…without the slightest notion or concern for what awaits you far below?
I’d assembled a “Best of…” collection of tales and spent more than a year trying to find a publisher for it. All of the stories in that collection, titled Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination, had been previously published, some in pretty prestigious publications. A couple had aired on CBC Radio and I’d even received a generous grant from the Canada Council that helped pay for writing part of the book.
See, the widely held view is that single author short story collections, regardless of the stature of the writer, just don’t sell. Sadly, I can tell you from personal experience that this is not an urban legend, for some reason contemporary readers shun the short story format. God knows why. Regardless, publishers tend to shy away from anthologies and such and my little offering was no exception.
“These stories are well written but as you know in today’s marketplace short story collections do not attract significant sales, etc….”
Heard that one a number of times.
But, curiously enough, the one sentiment repeated over and over again was this: good writing, exciting plots and themes, but we don’t publish this type of thing.
What exactly was “this type of thing”?
My own bizarre concoction, a spicy stew of science fiction, horror, fantasy and mainstream, literary prose. A mash-up of every genre under the sun, defying categorization and safe niches. Which didn’t help matters. As far as Canadian presses were concerned anything with the slightest taint of genre was out—more than one Canuck editor gave me the impression that my stories weren’t, well, Canadian enough, didn’t conform to some weird, unwritten cultural checklist.
And as far as the Americans and Brits were concerned, I was a young, emerging writer, no following, and while my work showed originality and creative spark, it wasn’t worth risking a significant investment of time and resources.
So my book was effectively dead in the water.
But I couldn’t help thinking about a fellow I’d heard about out east, a guy who’d made it his mission in life to stick a pin in the Canadian publishing industry and, in general, make a nuisance of himself. Crad Kilodney’s best stunt, in my view, was submitting classic stories by Kafka and Hemingway and others to a national literary contest and then publicly embarrassing the judges and administrators for failing to recognize their literary merit.
Crad, understandably, found it difficult to place his work so he started publishing it himself and selling it as limited edition chapbooks on the streets of Toronto. My wife brought me back a copy of one he dubbed Bang Heads Here Suffering Bastards in the late 1980’s and I was immediately impressed by the author’s chutzpah and creative passion.
When my Sex collection was passed over by every publisher north of the Rio Grande, I recalled Crad and his fuck you, DIY mentality and thought to myself, shit, I can do that too.
It took me months to put it all together, find the right cover art, a printer and bookbinder, and the final price tag was (gulp) just over $3000 to print 500 copies. Money I did not have.
Fortunately, the entire print run sold out in about five months.
It was astonishing.
I think my old chum Mark Ziesing sold at least 70 copies through his small mail order company alone. The Regina bookstore I worked for at the time also moved a lot of copies and every time Sherron and I travelled somewhere, we always took a box with us, nabbing consignment sales in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto.
There were no returns.
The crowning moment was when our bookstore staff had dinner with Canadian literary icon Timothy Findley. Once he heard I had a new book out, Tiff generously asked to see it. After reading it, he sent me the most beautiful blurb possible. I was unable to use his kind words on that edition of Sex and promised him I would never employ them on any other title except the one for which they were intended. And so when I re-release Sex and Other Acts of the Imagination on its 25th anniversary early next year (2015), it will finally feature Tiff’s warm praise:
“This is a book of hot dreams and frozen nightmares. It floats on a plane few writers achieve, where the imagery is raw but the insights are tender. The people in these stories will stay with me for a long time to come.”
Thanks, Tiff. You dear, sweet man.
I’ve published a couple of short chapbooks and a collection of novellas (Righteous Blood) through other small presses but I have to say none of those experiences came close to the joy I felt writing, editing and publishing my own work. No middle men, no editorial interference, no bullshit. Controlling all the creative and aesthetic decisions, right down to the choice of font and margins.
I was hooked.
I released books through my imprint, Black Dog Press, in 1994, 1995, 1997…but that last title (another short story collection!), The Reality Machine, cost me close to $7000 and put a serious strain on our finances. It took us awhile to recover and then I embarked on a 3 1/2 year odyssey that became, eventually, my occult thriller So Dark the Night.
The completion of that novel coincided with the arrival of print-on-demand publishing, the biggest change to the book biz since Joe Gutenberg opened his first copy shop in Mainz. Thanks to POD, publishing on a smaller scale has become much more affordable, plus I now have access to the international marketplace I’ve always coveted. Physical book or digital version, it’s up to my readers.
Since the 2010 publication of So Dark the Night, this press has released 5 more titles, each of them professionally designed and formatted, featuring eye-poppingly gorgeous cover art. You’ll find them in my bookstore and, I think you’ll agree, they look as good as any offering you’ll come across in your favorite book store. The writing isn’t bad either.
So that’s the story behind Black Dog Press, my eccentric little publishing venture. Twenty-five years and eleven titles later (two more in the pipeline), and we’re still going strong.
I may never get rich but at least my work is out there, available to readers who seek prose that veers from the familiar and mocks the very notion of consensual reality. In this era of corporate publishing, a profit-mongering environment that encourages the proliferation of sub-literate, derivative fiction, independent presses like mine offer hope and inspiration to those of us who revere the printed word and refuse to kowtow to the mediocre and witless.
Thanks for your support over the years.
The best is yet to come.
My volume of New & Selected Poems (1984-2011) has been shortlisted for a 2013 ReLit Award.
Read about it here.
The ReLits celebrate the best books released from independent Canadian presses and I’m pleased to make the final roster and delighted to be in the company of some really fine writers.
My thanks to the administrators and sponsors and all involved.
When I consider the amount of writing that represents, the amount of words, I’m more than a little taken aback.
I find it fascinating how much the blog has morphed in the past six years. It started out as a platform for an angry-not-so-young man venting about the stupidity of traditional publishing and now it’s pretty much anything goes. A couple of years ago I started adding music and short films and recorded spoken word pieces—that was exciting. New technologies put film-making, the creation of music and visual art, into the hands of more of us and while that’s led to an explosion of amateurism and incompetence, it has also allowed a few bright lights to shine as they try out new disciplines (and make some rather brilliant beginner’s mistakes).
But the absolute best part of having this blog is that it puts me in person-to-person contact with my readers. I was somewhat slow getting on the whole blogging bandwagon but now I can’t tell you how thrilled I am at how many people have written and reached out to me through this site. I soon came to realize I have readers from virtually every part of the world—I recall one chap who wrote to me from a university classroom in Melbourne, Australia. Bored with his instructor, wanting to talk about writing. Still makes me smile.
I’m also pleased that Beautiful Desolation has put me in touch with fellow indie artists, writers and musicians who have little truck with the corporate scene and want to express themselves without interference or compromise. I think after close to 30 years in this biz, I’m seen as some kind of “grand old man” of indie writing/publishing. Occasionally, I’ll get calls or e-mails from someone in the press, a reporter seeking my views on independent publishing, e-books, the state of writing in general, and I have to smile. As a prognosticator, my record isn’t exactly stellar. I think I’m on record as saying a few years back that e-readers were mere gadgets and people would eventually tire of them and return to physical books.
Let’s face it, life ain’t easy for us indie types. Most publications refuse to take us seriously or review our work so it’s very hard to get any “buzz” going when we release new material. On top of that, there’s the absolutely unprecedented amount of writing being released these days (see my last blog post), and that flood of material, that deluge of (mostly) offal, renders it well-nigh impossible to draw readers to excellent, literate, world-class writing. Who wants to pick through a reeking dung pile in the faint hope you might find a glistening pearl?
But I’ve stuck it out for nearly three decades, refusing to be cowed by idiotic editors and scumbag agents. Yeah, the money is lousy and the rewards few and far between but, y’know what? My strange little imprint has released some really fine titles over the years and there isn’t one of them I’m not honored to call mine. No hackwork, no sharecropping, no selling out. Every one of my books, right from the first, is original, innovative, literary, intelligent. How does that compare with the shite polluting the last box store you browsed?
* * * *
A couple of weeks since my previous post and you know what that means:
25,000 words on paper in the last ten days. A new project in a new “genre” I’ve never tried before. Good Lord. Sometimes even longtime readers must just throw up their hands and wonder what possesses me. I wish I knew. All I can do is follow my Muse, wherever she leads me. And often that’s taken me into some mighty strange territories. I mean, a western, for heaven’s sake?
I’m quite encouraged by this new project (still unnamed) but it’s going to involve a lot of research at some point. As soon as this rough draft is completed, I’ll be Googling like a sumbitch, trying to find out all about—well, never mind. Think I’ll wait a bit, hold off until this piece is further along before I open up about it. Even my wife is in the dark as to what I’m up to.
Not much time for leisure and entertainment in the past while, but my sons and I did manage to zip in to Saskatoon to see Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest flick, “Only God Forgives”. My review appears over on my film blog.
One last thing: three hundred blog posts deserves some kind of special recognition. So I’ve prepared a treat for #300, a little freebie for everyone who’s dropped in out of curiosity and came back because they liked what they saw.
My thanks to you, one and all.