Friday, February 22, 2013

A Sad Story

I remember a sad story about an old classmate. He'd gotten two layoff notices from the university and hadn't appeared in public for a couple of weeks. One afternoon a couple of friends went to his house to check on him. He appeared at the door with a small glass of whiskey, wearing an open housecoat and boxer shorts and quickly motioned his friends into the house. Once they were in, he was happy to see them, and when they asked about his absence he showed them the layoff notices. They asked him what he thought that meant. He said the president of the university wanted him dead.

I have no idea if the president did want him dead, but I don't think so. I recently got two notices two weeks apart, each from a different assistant at a literary agency. They both told me the book was not for them. It does seem a bit much.

Then I did a similar thing today, rejecting a story that had previously been withdrawn from consideration. Wow, the response was swift, and it made me happy I hadn't sent a response to the agency (though my imagined response was a joke, not angry like this one). The response to my small error was quite indignant.

It reminded me, too, of a time a few years ago when I worked with a graduate student, trying to make her thesis, which was about something interesting, into a serviceable piece of non-fiction. It wasn't a project I took on because I believed in it, but because the publisher thought it would work. She had never written a thing in her life aside from academic papers for school. In the end it failed, after I worked for two months with her, reading revisions, responding to questions, suggesting directions, etc. The deadline came and went with nothing publishable to put in the journal.

So what happened? I received a long angry email from her accusing me of being unprofessional and just generally a bad person. It didn't hurt my feelings, but I was angry; often things people say in those emails would not be said in person, of course.

I didn't respond, because it would have been of no use, to me or to her. But I wanted to explain that she had published nothing nowhere and written nothing in her life and what did she know about this "profession?" It would have just been venting, so who cares?

It does make me wish, sometimes, though, that I might send real rejections and not polite ones. And if I was meaning to, I have an idea of the authors to whom I'd send multiple.

But then, I suppose, I don't want to make someone retreat into their house for weeks afraid I wanted them dead. I don't want anybody dead or even sad or angry, I suppose.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


There is a little column on the right side of my site and it's called news. I put news in there, but it's not really news by the time it gets there. But the latest news is that I've been lucky enough to be on the longlist for the CBC awards again this year. (Not false modesty--I like my story a lot, but really, there is a lot of luck involved, too).

But there are two sad things going on that don't get in the news column of my site. One is that the Canada Writes website seems to be full of publicists exclaiming about the importance of authors using social media. The other is that the rejections continue.

There is a lot to be said for social media, I suppose, but I am quite tired of authors being judged by their use of it. It's odd the argument even has to be made. It's always been this way, I suppose; all but the best have to sell themselves. I get it. But do we need a ton of stories about publicists saying authors should tweet?

The second one is related, I suppose. I am used to rejection. Who isn't? Every tiny motivational speech at a conference about writing aimed at those who want to write begins with a testimonial about the "successful" author papering his walls and the walls of his neighbours with rejection slips. It's a contest, it seems, where writers trot out their failures to show how low they were before the one big break. It reminds me too much of religous testimonials that depend upon the speaker hitting rock bottom before finding salvation; there is a competition to make your rock bottom lower than the previous person's.

Anyway, Hemingway said a number of good things about writing and one of them in A Moveable Feast applies now. He called himself something like a goddam phony martyr for whining about the difficulties of making a living.

I hear him. But, as the writer Ed Allen said in a workshop once when I was at USD (as he slammed his open hand on the seminar table), it should hurt.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Next Big Thing

This is called the blog tour that ran itself, and also "The Next Big Thing." You get tagged, then tag other writers. When you are tagged, you answer the following questions about your work in progress and list the writers you've tagged at the end. Thanks to Francie Greenslade for tagging me.
What is your working title of your book?

Listen All You Bullets

 Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was curious about the English class book selection at Asquith high school. There were no Canadian books that I remembered, but I remembered we read Shane in grade seven, and I wondered why. Was it meant as “western” literature, good for Western Canada? I had long ago encountered the argument that schools must teach the “best” literature and understood the implication that Canadian literature was not good enough. As my writing career progressed this idea became more and more offensive to me. I still encounter it with publisher’s representatives when I ask them for anthologies with more Canadian content.

Anyway, I wanted to explore a few things, using a novel like Shane as the starting point. One is these things do matter. What is popular culture becomes accepted as history at some point, and that can be dangerous. Two is the plot of Shane is too easy, of course. The blood is removed, and in the end the boy grows up well because of the example of the hero. I wanted to write a story in which the effects of this violent mythology were more realistically damaging.

The main character, a boy who is like a small man and carries the burden of this legacy of violence and cannot grow beyond it, came to me quickly thereafter. He was easy to picture: a boy in a hat he didn’t fit, weighed down by the guns he wore on his belt, and having adult mannerisms and habits.

 What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a literary western.

 Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

For the character of the boy, I don’t know his name and he’s much too old now. Years ago I saw a production of David Mamet’s The Cryptogram in Calgary, and that little boy was amazing.
I’ve thought of that guy as this character many times while writing the book.  Louis C.K. could play the bookseller who thinks he’s a hero.
The parents could be played by Sarah Polley and Dean Norris. Kirsten Dunst could play herself.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A boy abandoned by his parents in the wake of frontier violence struggles to find a moral centre in an amoral world.

 Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Neither. Gaspereau Press will publish it this September.

 How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The first draft took a couple of years. I never write a complete draft first, mind you, so who knows? It took two years to have the structure and all the correct pieces in draft form.

 What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I hope it’s a combination of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, In Parenthesis, and Snow White.

 Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The idea and the inspiration seem inseparable to me. I suppose the inspiration is always work that moves and challenges me, and these works will continue to inspire my work. Three are mentioned in the previous question. There are an uncountable number, really. I subscribe to Poetry, for instance, and almost every month there is a poem that makes me keep writing and gives me energy for a week or so; a new George Saunders story in the New Yorker does the same, or a Stephen Henighan story in The Malahat Review.

 What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Despite its historical setting, there is nothing real in it, except the violence. And despite the violence, it's a pretty funny book.
Please visit these writers for their answers, and I will try to add more:

Friday, February 1, 2013

Working on the Next Big Thing

A friend of mine, Frances Greenslade, recently tagged me in an interview series asking writers about what they're working on now. I'll post my answers and tag my own writers in the next week or so, but the effort of finding writers to tag, and who hadn't done the blog interview already, and who blog, has been quite instructive.

It reminds me how energizing speaking with other writers is, but also the difficulty. Maybe it's only that the weather in Saskatoon has been, with windchill, dipping below minus 40 the last few days, but I kind of miss Kelowna. It's partly the weather, but it's also the conversations about writing with my colleagues at the college.

Now and then I attend readings or talks by writers (and ostensibly for writers) but am often a bit put off by the tone of a number of the speakers. There is always something positive I can take from it, and I continue to go, but there is always something a bit depressing in the patronizing attitude toward the audience. Too often there it follows the model of a religious service, with the writer in question giving testimonials about how much writing has meant to her in her life. It baffles me.

Let's assume the worth of our work from the beginning.

So I miss beginning conversations with writers I know with ideas about the actual craft, and Francie is one of those writers (who also, as an aside, seems especially relevant to me and my wife right now as new parents, which her book By the Secret Ladder really prepared me for, and helps me to feel like a normal person instead of an insensitive brute when I'm exhausted) with which I have these conversations and always find them energizing.