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.
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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…
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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.”
Montana fading in the rearview mirror and I’m looking at fairly substantial revisions to my western, The Last Hunt.
My meetings and the research I conducted while in the Livingston and Yellowstone area proved invaluable; I’ve found numerous inaccuracies that have to be addressed, many details that can be woven into the narrative to give the novel far more authenticity and impact. There’s a small box of books to go through, a mountain of notes and photocopies, and I’m about to dive in, head first—
Instead, my Muse decides to bushwhack me and, like the worst blindside hits, I never even sensed this one coming.
I’ve had the notion for a science fiction story for a couple of years. I’m a huge fan of the genre, grew up devouring everything space-related I could lay my hands on. Three early efforts that had a big effect on me were “A Walk in the Dark”, a tale by Arthur C. Clarke, and two short story collections, Ray Bradbury’s The Golden Apples of the Sun and a youth-oriented anthology titled Tales of Time and Space (edited by Ross Robert Olney). The latter included “Birds of a Feather” by Robert Silverberg, which is still a fave. I spotted an edition of Tales of Time and Space at a library book sale a number of years ago. Immediately recognized it (even after an interval of thirty some odd years) and snapped it up. I treasure that book; both my sons have read it as well.
My tale, I’ve known from the start, would have a “retro SF” feel to it: like it could have been written back in the late 50’s or early 60’s by someone like Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, A.E. van Vogt or, yup, Robert Silverberg. Nothing state of the art or high tech. A small story about a lonely, little man. Some alternative history thrown in, a universe with some important differences from our own…
All very nice. But eight days ago I’m cleaning up my desk, sorting through papers and I come across a contest for novelettes and novellas, fiction between 7500-15,000 words, and all at once I’m overcome by this notion that my SF idea would be perfect for that length and I could use the contest, which has a decent payday, as my motivation. Poking a finger at the prize money: that would just about pay off your Montana trip, laddie.
Going after my conscience, my on-going worries over finances here at Casa Burns. My Muse has no sense of propriety or shame.
One things leads to another and, heh heh, eight days later I’m done, presented with a 37-page, 10,000 word tale called “Eyes in the Sky”. It came in a rush and would not be resisted. Any gal who’s given birth knows exactly what I’m talking about. The piece arrived just about fully-formed and its creation was so effortless, it made me suspicious that the bloody thing was no good. But Sherron has reassured me. She read a printed draft last night and gave “Eyes in the Sky” high grades. So I’m relieved.
But still perturbed to get yanked away from my western novel with no warning, no explanation. I guess it’s an object lesson. Something this control freak had better get through his thick head: I am not in charge. I am merely an agent, not the Source. I am servant to a difficult, mercurial taskmaster. I may grumble and groan but am compelled to obey; no rest for the weary and, as I should know by now, there’s always another story, waiting to be told…
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.
But here’s the thing: The Last Hunt is a western.
You heard me. I’m talking about hard-bitten gunslingers, tall, wide vistas, ornery horses, evil black hats, the whole bit.
Oh, sure, you say, but it’ll be like some kinda weird Cormac McCarthy hybrid, right? A whacked out, modernistic take on the Wild West, standing the entire genre on its head.
Nope, nope and…nope.
Y’see, I happen to love westerns. I don’t look down on the genre, relegate it to second-class status. I grew up watching Clint Eastwood and John Wayne movies. I enjoy reading the novels of Elmer Kelton and Richard S. Wheeler. They’re superb writers, regardless of categories and classifications.
I’m saddened by the cinematic decline of the western—the last truly great cowboy flick I saw was “The Long Riders”, made back in 1980. “The Unforgiven” (1992) was a decent movie but far too earnest and over-long. “The Long Riders” was the shit.
And since then there’ve been remakes and abominations like “Young Guns”—westerns by people who’ve never been near a horse in their lives and whose knowledge of the Old West is, put kindly, superficial. Hollywood has tried to update westerns, reinvent them with big name stars and budgets that would make even Michael Cimino swoon…but they’ve lost the spirit. Sam Peckinpah and John Ford had a real grasp of those who pioneered the land west of the Mississippi, their contrary natures, the sort of valor and resolution Alan LeMay refers to in a quote that precedes his classic novel, The Searchers:
“These people had the kind of courage that may be the finest gift of man: the courage of those who simply keep on, and on, doing the next thing, far beyond all reasonable endurance, seldom thinking of themselves as martyred, and never thinking of themselves as brave.”
In the course of writing The Last Hunt, by pure chance I happened across a reproduction of a William R. Leigh painting called “The Warning Shadow”. It was another one of those too-amazing-to-be-a-coincidence moments (and I should know, I’d had a few of them). The image was perfect for my book—but I had a dickens of a time tracking down who owned the rights. Finally, I was put in touch with the Rockwell Museum of Western Art (in Corning, New York) and Bobby Rockwell helped me secure permission to use the painting. Mr. Leigh’s artworks are highly prized, very collectible and I’m honored to have “The Warning Shadow” on my cover.
The cover accompanying this post is, I hasten to say, a mere mockup…but it gives you a fair idea of what to expect. Once our designer, Chris Kent, has a crack at it, the cover will look even better.
As for plot details, er, I think I’ll keep that to myself for now. When it gets closer to publication date I’ll be more forthcoming. Hoping the novel will be popular with fans of the western genre as well as people who just love a fast, entertaining read. Like my last two novels, I think The Last Hunt has a lot of cross-over appeal, the potential to draw a wide variety of readers.
I’ve spent the past three weeks going through the second draft and I like what I’m seeing. It’s a short novel, around 50,000 words, and it moves along at an exciting clip. Good, solid protagonist and memorable supporting players. By the time this book is released in the late fall, it’s gonna hum.
So stay tuned, check in every once in awhile for updates and further developments. Maybe even an excerpt or two, just to whet your appetite.
Yeah, I know, a western. But, trust me, it’s a helluva tale…