The White Pine Award is part of The Forest of Reading, Canada’s largest recreational reading program, made up of eight programs and run by the Ontario Library Association (OLA). The programs are geared towards readers in kindergarten to grade twelve, with several programs targeting adult readers, ESL learners and French speakers. The White Pine Award is the young adult category. The Forest is unique in that it is the readers themselves who choose the winners of each category by voting for their favourite books. Writing for young readers, this last point is particularly gratifying. I’m truly honoured to be part of this widely acclaimed experience.
Can’t wait ’til we write up the obit
Of this scurrilous virus called Covid
They’ll be tales to recall
Of how he transformed us all
Like the metamorphoses of Ovid.
Sometimes not being able to sleep is like being in a vast department store where they’ve taken down all the exit signs. You’re in household appliances, one moment, comparing the pros and cons of two complicated coffee makers and then suddenly you’re in lingerie, still wondering whether the one you liked the look of, best, has a self-cleaning function. Unaccountably, a moment later you’re in sporting goods looking at firearms though you’ve never killed anything in your life, as far as you know. A smooth-faced young man appears at your side telling you there’s a clearance sale and you look at him and think, Oh, no, they’ve hired this guy with no back-up check and you’re pretty sure he’s that mild-mannered quiet fellow – the one who perpetually lives next door that you’d never suspect of anything like this. “These babies are just flying off the floor,” he says holding up something curved and shiny with a lot of cables and cams, and you say, “Not right now, thanks,” and slip between racks of camouflage gear, which seem to do the trick, only to find yourself in haberdashery, nervously flipping through little packets of buttons, ribbons, zippers and other notions – maybe hoping to find a great one. Then a kind elderly voice says, “I can take your measurements, dear, if you’re not sure.” And she could because she’s got a tape measure hanging around her neck, except you figure she’s blind because while she seemed to have been talking to you, she’s addressing a half-dressed dummy. Then you look in a mirror and realize it isyou and you back away, apologizing, and she says, “That’s alright, dear,” to the mirror and points you toward children’s wear but instead you end up in Lost Lyrics. It’s not any ordinary department store. “Can you hum a few bars,” asks a chipper young clerk. “I could,” you say, “but it won’t help because it’s something I wrote myself.” “Hmm,” he says. “How about: ‘This heat has no fixed address, no next of kin/So it clings, limp and wet, to your skin?’” And you say, “Yes! That’sthe one. But how does the chorus start?” and he says, “Da da dum, da da dum, dumbedy dumb.” Which is when you scream and race for the nearest escalator but it’s an up and you need a down. Wasn’t someone meeting you at six? All the escalators go up, it turns out, and you stop and sniff, hoping to smell perfume because if you were anywhere near cosmetics you’d be almost there, where the whole thing started. You run, now, up one aisle, down another until you have to stop to catch your breath only to feel someone grab your leg and when you look down there’s a small boy tugging on your pants. “Please, sir, are you my daddy?” he asks, plaintively, and you say, “Not as far as I know,” and right away there’s a weedy little manager-type peering at you through beady eyes and even beadier glasses, asking, “What’s going on here?” From the frown on his face, he looks ready to call Security, which would be great! “Please, yes! Call Security.” Because the truth is all you needis a little security: a cup of warm milk, perhaps, a teddy bear, a lullaby about all the pretty little horses – but not that one about the branch breaking and the baby plummeting to its death. Which is when a smile appears on the weedy manager’s face as if you had said out loud what you’d just thought and it’s then that you recognize him: “You were the bank examiner fella in It’s a Wonderful Life,” you say. And he says, “Well, I wouldn’t know about that,” and that’s when you notice that he’s deftly managed, somehow, to un-cling the child from your leg and is handing if off to a sweet looking couple who certainly look to be the parents of the child, although the mother says, “Do you have anything in a girl?” Anyway, off they go and off you go, with the bank examiner leading you gently by the elbow. “This way, sir,” he says. “I think I know exactly what you’re looking for,” and he leads you to the bed department. “Are you looking for a twin?” he says, and you wonder out loud if maybe you have always wanted one. Then he chuckles at your harmless little joke and you realize he’s heard it hundreds of times before. “How about a queen,” he says, “or a king or a gatch?” You’re just about to ask him what that is, when you see, off in a far corner through a maze of mattresses, a bed with a blue comforter and a woman asleep in it who you’re almost positive is your wife. He gets you there – who knows how — and you say, “Yes, this one. This one is perfect.” You say it very quietly so as not to wake her up and the bank examiner tucks you in, pats your shoulder and says in a soothing voice, “I’ll get the lights.” And before you even have time to thank him, sure enough the lights dim and the store with all its myriad departments and diversions and upwardly mobile escalators slips away. You plump your pillow and think how lucky you were to run into that beady-eyed chap who turned out to be quite pleasant really and did, indeed, know what you wanted. You’re just about to drift off, when the woman you’re almost positive is your wife rolls over and mutters, sleepily, “Honey? Did you remember to pick up the new coffee-maker?”
It’s been quite a while since my last blog. I’d started out with such good intentions… Ah, the best laid plans. What happened to the time? Well, a new book happened, that’s what. It had already been in the works when I started this blog, but I was in hiatus from the book, a really attractive word meaning a pause or gap in the process. To be frank, I was stuck – not sure where to go next. So, there was lots of free time for, among other things, blogging.
And now here I am again, with time on my hands, having finally sent the manuscript off. Now, there is only the interminable waiting game. Waiting to hear from an editor or agent should never be active waiting as in sitting there twiddling your thumbs. But I’ve already said all this in an earlier blog, you can find below, called, “What have You Got to Lose?”
I began this latest manuscript on January 23, 2018, so it took two years and six days to finish, followed by two weeks for one final copy edit before pushing the send button. I start a file folder with each new book (I’m still a paper kind of guy, having begun my career when typewriters were still a thing.) When I have that good feeling that whatever it is I’m working on is actually going to happen, I grab a file folder, note the date and keep tabs on the process as well as the changing title of said manuscript, not to mention the fluctuating names of the main characters. My protagonist this time around began life with the unlikely moniker of Axel Concord Calum Tait. That became Abner Tate in time. And the book went from being called The Door to Yesterday to Reunion Beach. That’s the title it went to my editor as, in any case; if it gets accepted, that could change. It’s out of my hands right now and I’m in this sort of nice kind of place: a landscape of no ideas.
When I mentioned this to my nephew, JW-Jones, a blues player and writer himself, he asked, perceptively, how long I’d be happy looking out over a landscape of no ideas. It’s a good question.
I can truthfully say I haven’t an idea in my head, right now, beyond what I’m going to cook for dinner. And it’s actually kind of pleasant, a relief. Worrying about the fates of a cast of imaginary people is endlessly engaging and diverting when you’re in the thick of it but also frustrating, especially when the characters get cantankerous – start asking too many questions. Sometimes you find yourself at war with your plot or you get swept away on a tide of really interesting research and end up in some other novel altogether different than the one you started out writing, which requires a laborious swim back to more recognizable shores. From this vantage point it all seems somewhat… well, silly. Silly and tedious. Come to think of it, it seems an awful lot like hard work!
Having no ideas means better sleep at night. When I’m writing a novel – especially in the first rough draft – my nights are filled with what-ifs. A good image would be wandering around in the dark on a construction site with no flashlight. Lying all around you are these building materials for a new edifice – your next creation – but it’s night and there’s no order to what’s lying where, so it’s pretty stressful, even dangerous. There are planks with nails in them, hard-edged girders, muddy holes. And in order to really feel in contact with it all, of course, you’re not wearing work gloves, helmet or safety boots.
There are those special nights when the moon breaks through the cloud cover and you begin to get the first shadowy sense of how this higgledy-piggledy mess might get put together.
Not so much.
I actually hate first drafts. Oh, I love the rush of the new idea taking shape, but, to switch metaphors, it can be like a virus that seems to rapidly take over your mind, proliferating at a mad rate, until it’s eating up your whole consciousness.
To return to my earlier metaphor of the construction site, The Landscape of No Ideas is, by comparison, empty, serene; there’s nothing to trip over. It’s not exactly barren; that would suggest that nothing could ever grow there. It’s just that there’s nothing much to see, right now. Nothing much to do, except go check out Alison Roman’s latest cook book, maybe. Scroll through music videos of Jacob Collier on YouTube. Download yet another crossword from the Washington Post. Or write a blog.
So, in answer to your question, J-Dub, how long will I be happy having no ideas? Maybe another day or so…
Because my brain craves the hurly burly of turning wondering into words. Does that begin to explain the obsession? I’ve got questions, see. And there are some that matter deeply to me. I guess that’s it: every book I’ve written has behind it some big question I couldn’t answer succinctly – not smart enough. So I have to commit to the long-write, the puzzling out, the narrative structure of Story in order to unravel the mystery.
I understand the world in terms of Story.
I can watch the news, listen to a debate, examine a graph, interpret an equation all to some limited degree of understanding. But it’s only in the grappling with Story that I grasp the big things that seem to matter the most.
You can’t push the river, according to a Chinese proverb. So I find myself standing by its edge: watching, waiting. Because there is something, after all, in this landscape of no ideas: the constancy of the river. What piece of flotsam might float by? If I cast my line into it, what might I snag? If I put together a boat, somehow, out of twigs or logs or birch bark — or even just paper — where will the river take me?
It’s here at last! The long-awaited sequel to The Maestro will be on book shelves, everywhere, in just sixty days!
Okay, “long-awaited” might be a bit of a stretch. You probably didn’t even know there was supposed to be a sequel. Full disclosure — neither did I. And as sequels go this one has been remarkably tardy. In fact, it’s been so long in coming that Burl, the sixteen-year-old protagonist of The Maestro, has had enough time to go to university, get married and have a sixteen-year-old son of his own. So, the Starlight Claim is what you might call an intergenerational sequel.
In my many years of teaching I’ve run into quite a few busy scriveners working on series, a trilogy, at least, if not, let’s say, an heptology. I’ve never been able to do that, myself — see a narrative arc that stretches off into the deep blue. In my capacity as instructor, I usually get to see an early draft of Book One in the great saga the aspiring writer has planned and, while there have been notable exceptions, a lot of the times the first crack at Book One is jam-packed with world building — AKA backstory — and not a lot else. Not enough else. I’ll ask the writer about some plot development like when is the doughty heroine, Grönagh, going to meet the irrepressible rascal, Slapnik, and be told, “Oh, that’s going to happen in Book Three.” I’ll wonder out loud whether there might be a chance of some good fun action, early on – how about the hero duelling with the dragon? “No, no, no – that’s going to be the thrilling climax of Book Five.”
And like that.
A lot of times what I end up saying, as gently as I can, is that unless the first book is… you know, interesting, filled with things happening, not to mention a host of characters we get to know and care about — love and hate — there won’t be a Book One let alone a sequel. Not one that any publisher will be interested in.
That said, I do admire the vision of those writers who see their way to setting out on the grand adventure of The Very Long Narrative. At the rate I’m going, a heptology of the Crow family’s epic saga would reach its final peroration somewhere around 2139.
This time it’s Nate Crow (named after the maestro, himself, Nathaniel Orlando Gow) who’s travelling solo into the Boreal wilderness of Northern Ontario, with a weight on his heart and a weight on his conscience even bigger than the weight he’s carrying on his back as he snowshoes to the cabin his father built on the footprint of the maestro’s hideaway. You’ll want to read The Maestro to find out what happened to the original cabin. Mercifully it’s still in print – the book I mean, not the cabin.
It’s March Break, as the story begins, but because this is northern Ontario, it’s still deep winter and there’s a massive snow front moving in. That, unfortunately, is not the only problem awaiting Nate on the north shore of Ghost Lake. There’s unfinished business and unexpected guests. Did I say Ghost Lake was isolated? You bet it is. There’s no one for Nate to reach out to for help. No bars on his phone. No way out. Unless…
Over the years I’ve had hundreds of fans ask me what happened to Burl and what happened to his awful father. They often have suggestions. Well, I’ve finally answered those very good questions and just wanted everyone to know that the wait is over! What’s two months after twenty-four years?
“Candlewick on Brilliance Audio presents The Starlight Claim by Tim Wynne-Jones, performed for you by the author.” That’s the opening of the “IES” I recorded this past week. I’m not sure what IES stands for – kind of an intro / extro — but it was a huge relief saying those words into the mic at the end of two days of recording, roughly ten hours, in all. I’ll say more about the new book in my next post but for now I’m still high on the recording session.
This was my second time. I recorded The Ruinous Sweep last spring down at Brilliance Audio headquarters in pretty, little Grand Haven, Michigan. I had to audition to get the gig. I know what you’re thinking: Really? Well, the truth is, three earlier titles of mine had been made into audiobooks by Brilliance and were, as far as I was concerned… well, brilliant. Therefore, it was with trepidation that I even asked to try out. I was truly pumped to get the nod and not a little frightened. It all went swimmingly. The Ruinous Sweep audiobook even cadged an “Earphones”Award from Audiofile Magazine.
This time, we were at DB Audio, in Toronto. The image above is generic; it’s the kind of thing the engineer is seeing on the other side of the glass from the reader’s cubbyhole. On this occasion the engineer was Evan Desjardins. He was wearing headphones, of course, as were the director and I, but the engineer is the one actually seeing the recording, looking for the manifestation of extraneous sounds on the screen, like when I forgot to put my cell phone on airplane mode after a break and it vibrated in my pocket. He’s also on the lookout for stuff that maybe sounds “chewy” – one of his favorite descriptors. A good ear aided by a good eye and an all-around good guy. Thanks, Evan.
The director was Tom Park who has done a ton of commercials and voice work. He’s got one of those voices you’ve heard a hundred times, mellow and modulated, and oh so soothing to have in my ear, bringing me down to earth, when I was stumbling or racing through an exciting passage. (There are a lot of those in The Starlight Claim.) Tom lives in Muskegon, Michigan and that’s where he was for the taping. He alluded to the idea that he just might still be in his pajamas. Tom skyped in and had the same feed in his headphones as the engineer. Tom would catch me when the sound was getting wet or sloppy. He’d also catch me when tiredness was making my voice blurry. At one point he suggested a lunch break because he heard my stomach rumble — all the way down in Muskegon. Ah, modern technology.
I kept using the Canadian “towards” instead of the American “toward.” Since the book is published in the States, we were using American spelling and style so the word on the page said “toward” and that’s what I should have been saying. You wouldn’t believe how often it came up.
But the best part of working with a director was having someone monitor my pace, reining me in when I was speeding, acknowledging the high and low points, and making sure any accents I used for different voices stayed distinct and uniform throughout. Thanks, Tom.
It’s fascinating to add recording to the end of the writing process. Most writers I know would admit that by the time they’ve dealt with the final copy edits on a book they never want to read it again. Yeah, you’ve got to pick out a quotable passage for public readings but other than that, “Hasta la vista, baby.” That’s certainly been true for me. Then there was that first audiobook (The Uninvited, read by Angela Dawe) and it was a real treat to partake of the story again. It was as if it was no longer mine – in a good way – and I could enjoy the choices she made in her interpretation of the text.
Never reading the story again after copy edits is not an option when you get the gig of recording it yourself. And this, obviously, has to be a focused read, no skimming, no zoning out, no losing the thread. (Every dip in energy gets caught – “How about we do that again, Tim.”) And this reinforces, in a big way, something I’ve said to writing students for years. This kind of zeroing in on every single word is exactly why you need to read your manuscript out loud in the revision process. The ear is a far better editor than the eye in catching redundancies, unintended rhyme and – let’s face it – general clunkiness. You might even catch an uninvited “s” at the end of “toward.”
Anyway, a huge thanks to the good people at Brilliance Audio who in each of my two experiences has made an exciting and scary — not to mention exhausting – process truly rewarding.
I had started out the morning writing a new short story and was two pages in, just getting my bearings, when I made a mistake no writer should ever make: I checked my email. I have railed about this to countless students over the years but here I was falling prey to the same curséd distraction responsible for myriad stalled writing ventures. Still, there was no way around it, I was hooked and too preoccupied to concentrate. The source of my excitement: the new BBC-HBO co-production of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. There was a trailer and there went my morning.
My list of favorite books gets reshuffled and added to and subtracted from all the time but every time, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy ranks near the top. And, on its own, the first book, The Golden Compass, stands in a class all by itself. Up there with the books that have changed my life: Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Milne’s The House at Pooh Corners. Heady company, indeed! Sadly, the 2007 movie version was dissatisfying, despite a great cast. Dakota Blue Richards seemed just about perfect as Lyra, the feisty central character, and Nicole Kidman was brilliant as her evil mother, Marisa Coulter. Watching the shoot, Pullman said that when Kidman came on set, the temperature dropped by ten degrees. Just what you’d want for one of the most malevolent female antagonists in all of fiction.
Sadly, the movie fell far short of capturing the deep magic or the profound breadth of the first book in the trilogy. It was mostly filmed as middle to long shots, a directorial decision that drove Pullman mad. I’m no expert on film, but it’s pretty obvious that a lot of what a movie does to intimately connect with us is through manipulation of the psychic distance between the characters and the audience. The camera dollies out and dollies in. In an extreme close-up you become emotionally entangled with the character and what they are going through, not to mention those little bits of legerdemain one can only pick up if you’re up close and personal. The otherwise beautifully art-directed and well-acted movie of twelve years ago never connected on that level. In my memory it was shot in more daylight than was called for and fell flat, narratively, in its desperate attempt to stay PC and not ruffle the feathers of those who might not have approved the anti-religious sentiment of the story.
Judging from the 43-second trailer, this version of the story is going to get up close and intimate and there will be dark. Good. These are dark times, after all, with truth on the ropes and intolerance on the rise. Battling the darkness means accepting that it’s there and not giving into it. And the truth at the core of His Dark Materials is a stunningly thought provoking one. It’s too rich and deep a story to bowdlerize: a long look at the nature of power and corruption. That said, it’s one of the truly great rollicking adventure stories ever written, with a remarkable central character in Lyra Belacqua, a child of sound instincts and a quick mind, caught right in the middle of a struggle for the ages. In this new version she is played by thirteen-year-old Dafne Keen who is memorable for her role as Laura, the mutant child, in Logan (2012). The director of that film, James Mangold has been quoted as saying, “If anyone could steal a movie from [Hugh Jackman] it would be Dafne Keen. There’s a quite remarkable video of Keen in an audition with Jackman.
And in the role of the mother from hell, in the new series, is the brilliant Ruth Wilson, you may remember as the psychotic Alice Morgan in the TV series Luther– perhaps the most bizarre sidekick, a detective (Idris Elba) ever got stuck with. I say “might remember” although it seems impossible that anyone who has seen Luther will have forgotten her.
I’m not, typically, a fan-boy. Sure, I get excited at news of creations by favorite writers, composers and filmmakers, but I don’t usually drop everything and… well, write a blog when I see that a TV series is coming. I had known it was in the works and from what little I can gather, so far, it looks awfully good. Pullman deserves this. The trilogy of books, I’m sure, will last – outlast — any other medium in which it is produced and by this point in time, there has been a wonderful full-cast audiobook and a stage version produced at the National Theatre in London. It’s exciting, none the less, to think that in this burgeoning new age of extraordinary television, freed from the shackles of commercial breaks and the rating game, that a work of such imagination might just find a home on the small screen that it did not get on the big one.
I had the great pleasure, last week of presenting at the Montreal Ya! Fest. And it really was a fist pumping “Ya!” kind of event with a diverse bunch of writers presenting to an equally diverse audience, young and old. The spirit was great and, considering that this is just their second year in operation, they sure know what they’re doing. Kudos to the Jewish Public Library and especially, the indefatigable Talya Pardo, director of the Norman Berman Children’s Library. I sat on three panels, participated in a Q and A, and was honoured to give the keynote address at the end of a very busy, enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable event. Here’s what I had to say.
It’s so great to be here amongst such a… well, what are we, collectively? I love those collective nouns we have for animals: a pride of lions, a barrel of monkeys, a bloat of hippos, an exultation of larks, a murder of crows – one of my favourites. Recently I ran into another option: a “storytelling of crows.” So are we a storytelling of writers? Whatever, we are a whole flight of literary dreamers and doers. The two categories are not mutually exclusive — far from it. Writers are dreamers who decided to do something about it. Jeff Zentner has this great bit in Rayne and Delilah’s Midnight Matinee about that delicious kind of dream that wakes you up to the thrill of possibility. The dream that means something: “There’s something great inside me,” his character says. “Something extraordinary and mysterious and undiscovered.”
We can all feel that. For a writer, every book starts out that way. Even if it’s inspired by a true story — historical events – the hot spring of words well up from some dream place within each of us. Those dreams — diverse as they may be — unite us, as does the upshot of the dreaming: the story that gets told. The story that starts out solely belonging to the author, becomes, through their generosity of spirit and hard work, ours, too. This is the miracle of Story.
You write from true events, let’s say, about a young woman caught up in the ethnic persecution brought about by Edi Amin, “The Butcher of Uganda,” as Shenaaz Nanji did in Child of Dandelions; you write about children as forced laborers in a Chinese internment camp in 1945, as Monique Polak does in her latest book, The Taste of Rain. Or, to bring things closer to home, while at the same time hurling us into a dystopian future, you imagine a time when people have lostthe ability to dream as Cherie Dimaline does in The Marrow Thieves— a time and place where indigenous people who can still dream are hunted down, their marrow harvested, because it is in the marrow that the dreams grow. Frenchie, the protagonist of the story, thinks of the webs in the bone as “clotted with dreams like fat flies.” Imagine that. Imagine hunting people to steal their dreams. Because, of course, to lose the ability to dream has got to have catastrophic psychological ramifications.
All of these stories and all the stories of all of us, written or still remaining to be written, still swimming around in the sea of dreams, have been and will be woven on the loom of dreaming. (And yes, that is a mixed metaphor.) Now here’s the corollary to the miracle of story: our ability to hear such stories, to readthem – stories from far and wide – to grasp and feel what is universal in what was originally, for the writer, highly personal. How amazing is it for the reader to see what is usin the meof the author’s story, in the she or he or they of the story. This is the miracle of empathy. The most human thing about us.
And that’s what I’m calling this talk, today: “The Most Human Thing About Us.”
When you look around at the state of the world, you might not immediately think that the thing we most share in common with one another is empathy. You might think the opposite. Homo Sapiens might mean “wise man” but we do have a pretty long criminal record of aggressiveness towards other species. I mean Europe was doing okay for the Neanderthals until we came along around 40,000 years ago. According to the fossil record, we didget along with the Neanderthals, more or less, for quite a while – somewhere between 2,600 – 5,400 years. That’s not too shabby. And it helps to explain why upwards of 4% of our DNA is Neanderthal. However, we did, ultimately, manage to wipe them off the face of the earth. It’s what we do. Homo Sapiens is one clever but violent critter.
Looking at the news can be pretty depressing. Intolerance seems to be on the rise. Reversion to ultra-nationalism. Us versus Them. The ability to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, which is at the heart of empathy, seems to be taking a beating. You’d not be wrong in thinking that, these days, the only way some of our less compassionate kin would walk a mile in someone else’s footwear was is if they’d stolen them. Sadly, this, too, is who we are.
Which means we have a lot of work to do. A lot of dreaming and doing ahead of us, whatever we collectively decide to call ourselves. A pain of writers? I believe with all my heart that stories heal. Stories bring us together. Maybe the only thing that works better is food. Stories feed us, as well. Stories take us into lives we haven’t led. And here’s a bit of a paradox: Stories can take us into lives we wouldn’t even wantto lead but are hardwired to want to hear about, to understand, to gain an insight into, to feel.
You know when you hear a terrifying personal tale and say, “I can’t imagine how you got through that”? The truth is you probably can. We can. We can imagine what it would be like to lose a beloved older sister to suicide, as Kim Turrisi’s character does in Just A Normal Tuesday. In the afterword we learn that Turrisi, herself, lost a sister to suicide. This is a truth she knows. She takes us off the deep end, takes us all the way to Grief Camp. And we go there… why? Because you don’t have to have a sister to miss one. Because we all know what it feels like to miss someone, deeply. We even have the imagination to realize our most stupefying fears, something, “not of mortal flesh but of… “blood and shadows… and… two glowing eyes,” as J.F. Dubeau does in A God in the Shed.
We can imagine tragic loss because we want to. We want to feel what there is to feel. And each incident of living vicariously through some conflict or other, teaches the heart strings a new song. In Heather Smith’s Ebb and Flow, her protagonist, Jett, “The incredible sinking boy,” gets a chance to take stock of a disastrous year with a visit to his granny on the island. By which I’m guessing Smith means both Newfoundland and that other island – the metaphorical one we end up on when we slip away from the solidity of the mainland and find ourselves drifting and alone. Jett says in his initial joy at being at his Granny’s, “I almost forgot/ I was there to forget.” He also says he feels hollow “…like an egg/with the insides blown out/a shell holding air.” We know that feeling, even if those are not the words we’d have ever found to express it.
We have our own words. And the words can be like the gentle hooks in Velcro, holding us, tight. Holding us up. I felt like that reading Kagiso Lesego Molope’s This Book Betrays My Brother.The language carried me along, moved me, urged me forward to a place I anticipated was going to be hard to take. Urged me and helped me take it and want it, wanting to feel.
There’s a writing workshop I do on Suspense. I include a two-minute video of Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, talking about how you create suspense in a movie. “There are four men sitting around a table,” he says. “Playing cards. Talking baseball. Boring.” This goes on for five minutes and then suddenly the table blows up. “What do you have?” He asks. “You have ten seconds of shock.” Nothing else. But what if you showed the audience the bomb under the table, first? He asks us. Now you have something quite different. A ticking clock. Your audience is engaged. The game, and the baseball conversation are no longer boring. You have dramatic irony – the audience knows something the actors don’t. “Now, you’ve got the audience working for you,” Hitchcock says.
I love this definition, because he explains the mechanism by which suspense is built, while also making it clear that there can be no suspense without anticipation. It also points to a broader issue that we as writers know instinctively: your reader has to careabout what happens to the characters. We don’t even know these four guys playing cards but we end up caring because we don’t want them to get blown to smithereens. We are capable of feeling empathy for anyone in a precarious situation.
Suspense, obviously comes from the same root as the verb to suspend – To hover. That state or feeling of anxious uncertainty, doubt, anticipation, expectation.It’s not something you want to inflict on a reader lightly, and it’s not something you want to leave your reader feeling when they’ve finished the story. The News does that all too well. There’s a whole lot of anxiety out there, folks! Suspense is about sounding the alarm and in doing so initiating this primal and very human desire to care, to want to reach out. And as a writer you then have a responsibility: the reader is yours and they are your responsibility.
Here’s the most important thing of all: the stories may be fiction, but the feelings of empathy that arise in us as we read the story are real. And the satisfaction – the deep sense of fulfillment we get from a book we’ve loved — having gone through hell with the protagonist and come out the other end – this catharsis is also real. A thing to cherish. A good book makes you just a little bit more human in this nourishing kind of way.
Like it or not, we are not the pinnacle of creation. We are not lords of the earth. We can be a pretty bad lot. But we do have this quality, this goodness in us, this urge to care, to find fellowship. In Nicki Pau Preto’s Crown of Feathers, Veronyka and her sister Val are ousiders, animages in a world that does not trust or value their gift of being able to communicate with animals. They live in “secrecy and squalor but with a dream,” Veronyka tells us, “A shining beacon of hope.” People often distrust things they don’t understand but one day, Veronyka hopes, “it would be safe to be an animage.” Her sister shares some of that dream but from the outset you know there’s going to be trouble because while Veronyka shares a kinship with the animals she communes with, her sister seeks domination over them. To her, the animals are mere tools. For all its fantastic trappings, Crown of Feathers takes place somewhere we recognize, all too well. A place where distrust of “the other” exists and, from time to time, runs rampant. But what the author is telling us is that it can be dreamed back into balance. First dreamt and then done.
There is this urge to dosomething. And isn’t it amazing and heartening that suddenly in our troubled world children are the ones stepping up and doing what needs to be done? We have so many shining examples: Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, Zhan Haite in Shanghai, Kelvin Doe in Sierra Leone – teenagers all. Courageous, passionate, hard working. There are heroes in our midst. Dreamers and Doers. Shape Shifters, World Builders.
We come to Story from a belief in the strength of words to bring about change. The weight of ink, a book title my wife told me about just the other day. Wow! The weight of ink. When we write we translate the world into words and the reader translates those squiggles on the page back into the world, but there is a transformation that happens: the reader has taken the author’s world and made it their own, the world they know. When we are released from the fictive dream of a book we’re reading, I can’t help thinking we see the world a little differently. We are translated.
Fantasy reminds us that we have this other very human ability. Metaphor. This is a kind of super power to see the “face” of the clock or the “heart” of the matter, to “digest” a new idea. Metaphor is central to thought. According to The Oxford Companion to the English Language, “all models of existence are associative make-believe.” Let me run that by you again. “All models of existence are associative make-believe.” We’re making it up, folks. That’s what we do. And here’s what T. R. Wright has to say about this idea in his book Theology and Literature:“If narrative is the way we construct our sense of identity, metaphor is how we think, especially in areas in which we need to build our knowledge of the unknown by comparison with the known.”
And there it is. When you can’t explain something, you find a way – you find the words. There is just so much unknown out there. There are places we will never go, people we will never be, histories that are not our own, countries in the clouds, beasts never found in the fossil record but that we know, somehow, existed if only as figments of our imagination. All models of existence are make-believe. When we read, we make belief come into existence. “In narrative we construct our sense of identity.”
Let me end with a quote from the Marrow Thieves. Frenchie “braids [his] hair to remind [him] of something he can’t quite remember but that, nevertheless, he knows to be true.” Our identity is not simply genetic, not just something handed down to us or meted out in the classroom. It is something to be constructed. A D-I-Y thing. The truth in fiction is what you feel and recognize to be true and those narratives you love are part of the construction of who you are. We are dreamers and doers. Humans with the ability to empathize. And that’s why it’s so great to get together with such a wild assorted jubilation of readers and writers, both the published and the still dreaming.
My first blog on this new site was about heading off to an award ceremony, The Arthur Ellis Gala, sponsored by the Crime Writers of Canada, a celebration of all things criminally literary, including the category of Best Juvenile/Young Adult Crime Book, for which my latest thriller The Ruinous Sweep was short-listed. Well, I fell short of taking home the prize. Congratulations to Linwood Barclay for Escape (Puffin, Canada), the second in his “Chase” series of books for kids (9+). He’s won the Arthur before for his adult fiction and will inevitably win again. He’s good. I’m a big fan.
Losing loses its sting over time. It gets easier to say what you knew all along – Hey, my book got nominated, aka noticed. I’m in the game. And while you’re at it — giving yourself a pep talk — it’s great to remember that the book lost, not you; you’re not a loser. A loser is the person who doesn’t get around to throwing their hat in the ring. You wrote a book, it got published. Yay!
The best antidote is to just get on with life. This is especially true, at the beginning of your writing career. You slave over that first manuscript. You revise it until it is as good as it can possibly be and then you begin the painful task of sending it out to find an agent, a publisher, a home. That’s a time-consuming business all on its own, or at least long periods of time are likely to drag on while you wait for a response. The very best thing you can do is not wait, in the sense of sitting around, eyes glued to the mail slot. As soon as you can, start into that most wonderfully hopeful and agreeable of all literary creations: the next book. Fill up your waking hours with a new cast of characters to care about, a new protagonist to throw to the lions and lose sleep over, as you heap conflict upon his or her head, raise the stakes, alarmingly, while all the time rooting for and strategizing toward a successful outcome and satisfying denouement.
Become ensconced all over again in story. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the verb “ensconced” to mean, “positioned safely or comfortably, somewhere.” There is also implied the sense of barricading oneself in, in some secure place. That’s what you need. The comfort of a diverting tale, the security of knowing that as long as this one is in your hands, it has every chance in the world of being… well, of being the best damn thing ever written. Oh yes, the writing of a first draft is fraught with hardship and frustration – that’s why it’s called a “work.” But if you love writing, there is no more dependable, sheltered place than being inside a story under construction. It is just so full of potential.
That other story — the one you finished – it’s out of your control for now. There’s nothing more you can do for it until otherwise notified. Bend your imagination toward a new task. Considering the snail’s pace of the publishing process, you’ll be so deeply inside this new struggle that the Thunk! of an SASE manuscript on the front hall floor will be only a momentary distraction. I’m waxing metaphorical here, of course; fat parcels with your address written on the front in your own hand seldom “thunk,” anymore. The rejection comes as a “ping” on your computer, announcing you’ve got mail. And if you’re smart, you’ve turned off “mail” while you’re writing. The story coming to light, coming to life, under your fingers – this is the one. What have you got to lose?
I’m off to Toronto next week for the Arthur Ellis Awards Gala. It’s an annual event held by the Crime Writers of Canada, celebrating the best mystery books of the past year in several categories including “Best Juvenile or YA Crime Book.” I’ve been lucky enough to win in that category twice before, for The Boy in the Burning House, in 2000, and Blink and Caution in 2012. I’m up against some stiff competition this year, including Linwood Barclay, a favourite thriller writer of mine. Escape is Barclay’s first foray into juvenile crime fiction. The list also includesMichelle Barker for The House of One Thousand Eyes, Kevin Sands for Call of the Wraith, and E. R. Yatscoff for the Rumrunner’s Boy. My own short-listed book is The Ruinous Sweep. I’ve got my fingers crossed!
My own connection to the CWC goes back almost to the very beginning. Long before I won an “Arthur” I had an intimate relationship with him, shall we say. But before I go into that, let me tell you about the man whose name appears on the trophy. Arthur Ellis was the nom de travail of Canada’s hangman, when we used to do that kind of thing. Which, you might be surprised to know was as recently as 1962. On December eleventh of that year two men were hung for two different murders at the Don Jail in Toronto. I guess that would be a busy day in the life of a hangman. The whole idea gives me the shakes. Canada still had a hangman on the payroll until 1976, when parliament voted to abolish the death penalty and only by a slim margin, 130-124. Scary to think about.
So how did Arthur and I become acquainted? Well, I never met the man – not as far as I know, anyway. After all, Arthur Ellis wasn’t his real name. Maybe he was that weird guy next door, the one who never got around to telling you what he did for a living? Anyway, my fellow crime writers entrusted me with the job of coming up with a suitable trophy for crime writing. The British Crime Writers had their “Silver Dagger,” the Yanks had their “Edgar,” named after Mr. Poe. And we had “Arthur.” When I started thinking of what awards were supposed to be, I thought of the Oscar and that endless parade of winners clutching the prize as they blubbered their thankyous. For one precious moment, I figured, a prize is a kind of stage prop. It needed to look good in somebody’s hand as well as on their mantel. So I thought, why not get a stage designer to come up with one? And I knew just the guy. Peter Blais was, at the time, an artist/actor/designer and just an all-around creative guy. Full disclosure, he beat me in an art competition in grade five. When we met again a million years later, I forgave him for winning; we were performing in a show together and, man, did he have a wicked sense of humour. He got it! He knew the kind of thing I wanted. Here’s the CWC’s first president, Tony Aspler, describing the wooden statuette that Peter Blais came up with: “a condemned man on a gibbet whose arms and legs flail when you pull the string – considered by some to be in execrable taste.” You bet! But a lot more fun than most prizes. I’m hoping I’ll get another chance to pull that string on May 23rd!