Tripping Over the Starting Line

First day of school. Which puts this novel at exactly two years, based on this moveable feast. Wow! Can’t say that I expected to be here still – at least not with the same novel. This novel-writing thing really is harder than it looks…

Despite possible appearances (i.e. the thinness of blog entries in the last several months…), I haven’t abandoned the project. I have been picking away at it though over the summer, including some fairly long stints the last couple of nights. I see it forming, all these gaseous ideas slowly spinning and coming together to make plotlines and themes and hooks. I’ve been rewriting, adding new scenes, chopping old ones, and rearranging events so that they’re tighter and make more sense. It really does feel like making a sculpture, except that instead of just taking stone away, I can add more stone where I need it, and even shift a bit here or there.

In other news: I have a cover design in mind (should I self-publish) and a title. Can’t share those with you yet, but I can say “soon”… Once I have a working draft that I can pass out to select readers, I’ll be sharing more of the details about the story, the title, and more.

New target date: Christmas 2012 for a reading copy. Not promising, but definitely working towards it.

So what’s left to say but Happy New Year!


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The Bookstore at the End of the World

On Thursday evening we were in Grand Marais, MN, about an hour and a half south of Thunder Bay – just went for dinner and a bit of a walk. It’s your typical seaside town: pebble beach, boats waking in and out of the harbour, lots of restaurants and shops lining the other side of the street along the water’s edge. Except of course, the “sea” is actually Lake Superior, our vast, vast inland body of water.

Other than that, we could have been in vignette of Galway Bay or Cape Town or a flatter, more-spread-out version Eastport, Maine. Kind of touristy, with everything on display a heightened, quaint caricature of the desperate truth just below the surface – that this is the last major settlement in America along the storied Highway 61, and that many more people go to the southern most bookend – The Big Easy – than The Big Marsh (except perhaps on that particular Thursday, when Issac was blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico).

Although Grand Marais isn’t necessarily the top of anyone’s Bucket List, it is nonetheless a very special place on Earth. That evening it was warm despite being the end of August, and the third-floor patio about the Gunflint Tavern looked like an inviting place to have drinks and watch the sunset. Anywhere else in the world – anywhere big, anyway – that perfect bar would have been impossible to get into, or if you did manage to slip the maitre d’ a little something, impossible to afford. Location, location, location I guess – and yet another advantage for those of us who choose not to live like lemmings in shiny metal boxes in some booming metropolis.

We walked along to the end of the “boardwalk” – not hard, considering it’s only about 400 metres long. There, at the end, we came across the Drury Lane bookstore. I think any writer or book lover would have been excited to see it – Drury Lane was truly the most beautiful, most exciting bookstore I’ve ever seen. The colours of it, for starters – you can see for yourself. The shape of the building, the lamppost, the sign, the porch and stairs, the little deck – everything about it appealed to me.

Perhaps most of all though was its location. Another 20 metres on, you’re in the lake, so it’s like the last bookstore in maybe forever. You stock up on books and launch your boat and you can physically go just about anywhere those stories will take you in your mind: Dickens’ London, Hugo’s Paris, Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg, Hemingway’s Florida Keys or Cuba, and all points along Fitzgerald’s route for Gatsby from Duluth along the Great Lakes to Chicago, New York, and West Egg. All under the twilight full moon, rising out of the sea to light the way. Set sail, oh, I don’t know, that way, and we’ll decide whether to turn right or left when we get there.

It also got me to thinking about independent bookstores – and bookstores in general, for that matter. This one, so obviously set up as tourist store. Were all bookstores destined to be this? A place where you splurge on real, touch-and-feel books on vacation or perhaps as a kitschy present for a friend? A place where you’re happy to lay down $50 for three books, like it’s some sort of charitable donation to a struggling bookseller on a nostalgic whim, lighting a candle for that Golden Age of Books?

I loved that the bookstore looked like someone’s attic, that it was all white and pristine inside, that the stacks of books weren’t the latest bestsellers only, or that there was nary a Hello! or Cosmo magazine to be found. I loved that I could wander around for a few minutes and get that charge that digital bookstores will never, ever give me, to be literally surrounded by a sea of books and to have my own boat to navigate them all (or at least a few of those ports of call…) I loved it was something we could all experience, together, as a family.

You grew up somehow knowing that bookstores would always be there. It was comforting in a way that you didn’t even consciously think about. Except when travelling – the joy of trudging into an English bookstore after weeks in the desert or the jungle or a foreign land is a special kind of comfort that can really only ever be felt – you consciously knew that joy. But to think that there is a very real threat that bookstores could disappear forever in our lifetime…

If that ever does happen, at least I’ll have this one memory in a glass snow globe in my mind, with my family marvelling at and basking in all these books, that I can shake up every once in while and remember.

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Stephen King has a Good Monday

It was a heady day for Stephen King, two Mondays ago.

Imagine his surprise and delight when he pulled up in his black crossover/SUV to find a future award-winning author standing outside the gates of his house. He was very respectful though – didn’t come over or wave or interrupt me as I quietly went about the business of taking pictures of his house. Perhaps he felt a little awkward, deciding whether or not to run into the house and grab his own camera, or scramble for a pen and paper for an autograph. Standing there with my family, obviously on vacation, probably was the kicker. Let him be, he said to himself.

So perhaps our paths will meet in the future — have a laugh about it even — at the Oscars or a impromptu gathering of the million-book selling authors (I hear it’s in Hawaii next year – I better get moving…)


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Shook Hands with a Pulitzer Prize Winner Yesterday…

I shook hands yesterday with Pulitzer Prize winner Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer”. It was during my day job — I heard him talk in the afternoon and then did a quick interview with him afterward. Very interesting guy, as you might expect. Here he is signing my book. (Okay, fake-signing my book — I had him pose for the article I wrote. Keep your eye out for the July 4 issue of the Chronicle-Journal if you’re in Thunder Bay, or sometime after that date if you’re not… Incidentally, took this and the other shot that will run in the paper with my new portrait lens — very nice…)

Now I’ve shaken hands with a Pulitzer Prize winner, a Governor General’s Award winner (Duncan Weller), and two Stephen Leacock Award winners (Paul Quarrington and Terry Fallis), a Giller Prize winner (Johanna Skibsrud). All I need is to find an Academy Award winning screenwriter, and I’ll be a quintuple threat with all that talent rubbing off on me…


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Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron was my favourite screenwriter, and one of the truest voices out there — how can you not think that When Harry Met Sally is one of the best movies of all time? Even if you don’t like romantic comedies, the wit and the truth that went into that movie… One line or another still goes through my head almost every day. Definitely was on my list of the top writers I’d like to have dinner with.

Wish I had time to say more here — very sad to hear the news.,0,4888846.story


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Rex Pickett to Write New Sideways Sequel

Just read on Rex Pickett’s blog that he is planning to write another Sideways novel — the last in the “trilogy” apparently — that should take place in Chile.

Pretty cool news. He came out with Vertical last year (maybe late 2010?) — actually this particular post is a (rather long) explanation as to why you shouldn’t expect to see Vertical the movie at your local cinema anytime soon. His own stage adaptation is running right now until July 22 to sold-out shows.

I liked both novels, and it’s been no secret that Sideways in particular (novel and movie) has been a huge influence on the novel I’m writing right now. I just hope I can have mine finished before Rex pumps out his latest… I mean, wouldn’t it be depressing if I don’t?


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Can You Spare a Few Minutes?

(Click to embolden)

Saw this in the bookstore. Made me laugh. “In your spare time…” — in the immortal words of Adam Savage, now there’s your problem.


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No, You’re the Mann

I take the last post back. At least somewhat.

The implication — at least in my mind — is that the writer is the sole caretaker of this fictional “reality”. I’ve realized over the past couple of days that this isn’t entirely true. Although a novel’s reality can’t exist without the writer, it also can’t exist without the reader. This is an extremely important point, I think, especially if you subscribe to the view that reading is an active rather than passive activity. (And I do.)

Reading is not a passive activity but an empathetic act of co-creation…

I believe this. Yes, the writer writes or creates a world. But the reader interprets that world in a way that makes sense to him or her. Especially in this day and age — instead of 25 Dickensian pages about a mountain view, today’s minimalist writer simply suggests the peak, the valley, and the picnic table the characters are sitting at, and the reader fills in the rest.

But that doesn’t take the pressure off the writer — in fact, I think it puts even more pressure. You have even fewer words now to suggest the scene and mood and characterization, so you have to do it subtly and precisely. And if scene plays heavily in the plot at that particular moment, you need to choose your words with great care if you are going to get your own vision firmly thorned into the reader’s imagined landscape.

It doesn’t have to be a handicap though — at least I don’t take it that way. In fact it’s a great benefit knowing that with some carefully chosen hydraulic touches, you can get your reader to do most of the heavy lifting in exactly the direction you want them to do it with as few words as possible.

That’s the theory, anyway.


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He’s the Mann

Was listening to the CBC today driving in between meetings and caught a snippet of what must have been Writers and Company. On it, Eleanor Wachtel was interviewing Carlos Fuentes who related a story about seeing Thomas Mann in a café in Zurich. When Eleanor asked Carlos what he had learned from Mann, he said that there isn’t such thing a “reality” in fiction — it’s all made up.

“The reality of literature is language and imagination,” he said.

What a nice sentiment! It’s very freeing. Literally anything can happen, if you let it. Makes me want to push my own “reality” a bit further out.

(I think I’m doing that somewhat, but I have that nagging feeling that I’m playing it too safe. Is that normal, do you think, for writers to fear that they are writing too normal, too boring? And if I don’t push it far enough now, with there be room to do it once I start getting some feedback? Will I even get feedback if it’s too boring to slog through, even as a favour to me?)


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Where I Am…

…because I obviously haven’t been here in a while. Truth is, I’ve been working days, nights, and weekends lately. I’m risking creative burnout as it is (knock on wood, hasn’t happened yet — deadlines are looming!). Needless to say, little work has been done on the novel.

On paper, at least. I find (and this is interesting, I think) that the story line is never far from my mind. I keep mulling over story points at the weirdest times, like when I’m making school lunches for the boys, taking out the garbage, or even mid-sentence of some work I’m doing.

Maybe it’s not that unusual. My mind often wanders, imagining some bit of whimsy or another. Perhaps what’s unusual is that I’m so often thinking about the novel. Historically, I lose interest in a novel fairly quickly. This is by far the furthest I’ve ever gotten. And I’m still turned on by it.

I take that to be a good sign.


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