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How to begin a new novel and…

FireI am in the midst of working on my fourth novel Indulgence in the Afternoon. A friend of mine is starting her first. I’ll call her Marie (her real name). She asked me to give her some “pointers” about writing a novel. After telling her she shouldn’t read any “how to” books, I am now engaged in the contradictory effort of writing this to give her (and myself) some direction. It’s a form of literary self-talk with someone listening (who isn’t a dreaded psychiatrist).

The reason why I suggested she not read any books on how to approach this most difficult task is because she was telling me that she was trying to follow the advice in the book: what should be achieved on the first page; the “arc” of the story; characters…. Of course, she was paralyzed.

It reminded me of instructing someone how to walk across the room:

“Getting up from a chair will involve all four quadriceps muscles which are inserted into the tibia. They all originate from the femur, with the exception of the rectus femoris, which originates from the ilium (highest bone on the pelvis), which allows it to play a role in hip flexion…”

Hey, wake up.

Instead of this kind of direction, I hear the voice of my mother. My youngest brother has always been thoughtful, which resulted in his being tardy (a.k.a. slow, but only in a time-sense) at doing everything from writing an essay to finishing his dinner.

My mother used to say to him, “Paul, just start. And then finish.”

Paul still takes a long time over his dinner but he has become a successful engineer, a partner in a large company engaged in building roads.

Aren’t you getting off track?

No.

Why is this relevant to me?

Because, while writing is a solitary task, you’ll inevitably be accompanied by various voices in your head which, unless you train them, are sure to foul you up. Whether the voices say: “who do you think you are, writing a novel?” or: “what you just wrote is so brilliant” — they will foul you up. You need to nurture a “good enough” voice. Which refers to the philosophy of a “good enough” mother.

“Who do you think you are?” is crippling. “This is so brilliant” is false. The one will prevent you from getting ahead; the other will prevent you from editing out all the really sloppy, easy, sentimental, half-cocked stuff you’ve managed to put on the page. (Now whose voice is that?)

I have, over time, developed a “good enough” writing companion. She says things like: “Leslie, just start. And then finish.” She makes me laugh.

This voice is also useful to me if I have a flat tire on my trailer pulling my boat through a beautiful, lonely stretch of road in the rain forest. Gosh, it sure feels like I have a flat tire. So I pull over. Yes, it’s a flat tire. I get back in my van and put my arms on the steering wheel and my head on my arms. Then the voice: well, my dear, you have a problem. But you can’t just sit here. You need to do something.

Writing sometimes feels like pulling a boat along a lonely road, a boat that you’re going to put in the water and have a wonderful time in this craft perfectly made for the element in which you want to travel. And you have a flat tire.

I’m stuck out here in the middle of beautiful nowhere. My head on my hands on my desk…

“Well, my dear, you have to do something.”

And, in the writing world, that “something” is: write.

It is an act of faith. Meaning that even if you don’t have it, you have to pretend that you do. The voice says: “I understand. You can’t write the next thing these characters are supposed to do, so just write it.”

“But I don’t know how.”

“Yes. I understand. Just go ahead.”

That’s how it works. That’s my “good enough” voice.

The main character in Indulgence in the Afternoon, Lucinda Yates, is an actress. She is always terrified before she goes on stage. This is what she says about it:

On stage, everything was at stake.

Running and tripping and getting up and running until the thermal airstreams caught her and lifted her above the fear. She never thought it could, before it did. Once she felt it, she always knew it would. She could fly.

Writing is also something like that.

The next thing Good Enough reminds me is that whatever I write will be really awful. So don’t re-read it. Just write and write and write. When you’re well fortified (not by tequila but by some morning drink which isn’t tequila) then you can read it, knowing that — being assured that – it’s going to be awful.

Finally, for now, I remind myself to “follow the heat”. What this means is that no matter what I’ve planned to write, or what I am in the midst of writing, if I can feel that the heat — the warmth, passion, interest — something like that — is pointing me or leading me in another direction, follow it.

Give me an example.

Yesterday I was writing a scene between Lucinda and her lover. She saw, on her lover’s desk, a love note from someone else. I was in the midst of having Lucinda thrash around with jealousy when I could feel that the heat was somewhere else. I kept writing, following the warmth. Instead of having her tear around in her jealousy, Lucinda thinks: Close the thing, put it slowly back down on the dresser and open your heart like never before.

Where the heat is, is where your creative urge takes you. It’s not some spooky, flakey notion. It’s just how it works. You can count on it. Follow.

If Marie writes me back about these directions, I’ll let you know what she says. And how we’re both doing.

Kissing the Fish

If Sue Milligan can be compared to a force of nature, it’s the aurora borealis. She’s colorful, surprising and she has a special kind of magic. She’s lived most of her life right where she lives now: off the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. She has been a commercial fisher, and she and her partner now make their living operating a water taxi in the area.

I drove my 16’ zodiac boat to her island one day for lunch. As I was leaving, she told me she’d caught a small rock cod that morning so she could show me how she sometimes gives fish to the eagle which nests nearby.

Standing on the dock, she whistled and called for the eagle, waving the fish in the air with her gloved hand. But he didn’t come out from wherever he was. She then held the cod carefully in both hands, raising it to her face. To my amazement, she pinched the head of the fish and put her lips on its mouth. And blew.

“There, its got air in it now. So it’ll float.” She handed me a glove, and then the fish. “You take it and watch for the eagles along the way home. Give it to them when you see them.”

Sue Milligan (it’s never right to call her “Sue”; she’s Sue Milligan) had devised an adventure for me.

I travelled along the coast slowly, scouring the tops of trees like an explorer searching for land. I’d never looked at the shore-line so intently, the steering wheel in my left hand and the fish in my right. Alas, no eagle.

When I got to my dock, there was no sign of the eagle that sometimes sits on a tall tree at Talking Bay near my cottage. I put the fish in a pail in the shed, thinking that the bear who’d come down the road earlier might be equally interested in the fish. Disappointment when on an adventure set by Sue Milligan is big. As big and unmitigated as when I was a child.

Two hours later, as I was eating dinner in the cottage, out of the corner of my eye I saw a large bird fly by. It was the eagle; it landed on one of the two small trees on a rock outcropping about 100’ from shore.

Mainly I ran: down the path to the shed, grabbed the pail, down to the shoreline. I grasped the fish and looked at its dead, lipless, spiny fish mouth. Okay, Sue Milligan, next time I’ll give it air, okay, but this time I’m not going to kiss the fish.

I could see the eagle almost camouflaged in the branches, except for its white-so-white head.

I tried to whistle for him, the way Sue Milligan did, but I was pretty ineffective. So I took a pitcher’s backswing and flung the fish carcass as far as I could out into the water. It landed with a splash. And as it did the eagle launched himself from the tree, made a half circle, swung down in front of me — a massive wing-span — and scooped up the fish with its talons, rising again and away. All this, 15’ from me.

I could see him on a rock across the water, eating the fish.

I wanted a boatload of fish to feed him. I was greedy to repeat this thing that had happened before my eyes and so close.

Thank you so much, genius Sue Milligan, for catching this fish just to give me the thrilling experience of participating in an eagle’s world. I’ll never forget it. How lucky I am.

Block Party

Block Party or “What if the fat lady wants to sing before it’s over?”

Credits

  • Filming and editing by Nick Oja
  • Performances: The Writer, Leslie Hall Pinder; The Psychiatrist, Peggie Merlin; The Husband, the Pregnant Wife and The Onlooker: Raheel Sarah and Megan Close
  • Music and lyrics by Kim Baryluk of The Wyrd Sisters from their CDs “Inside the Dreaming”, “Raw Voice” and “Wholly”
  • Other musical and inspired suggestions (and support) by Kim Baryluk
  • Thanks for the generous advice and assistance of Haida Paul and Mike Wilson, and also to the terrific “extras” who were willingly conscripted into the film.
  • The Giants, sculptures by Yue Minjun called “A-Maze-ing Laughter”, were recently purchased through the a-maze-ing donation of Chip and Shannon Wilson (of Lululemon) so they could remain in Vancouver
  • Flying assistance provided by Fly Zone Body Flight, Richmond, B.C.
  • I want to give due credit to the playwright and teacher, Sheldon Rosen, who inspired the idea of the film by telling me that he once went to Times Square in New York, at the suggestion of his psychiatrist, and handed out the dreaded “blank page” to passers by.

Filmed on location in Vancouver and Richmond B.C., Canada

A Nicety of Nouns

“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”  Thomas Mann

A friend of mine is a writer and he is a judge. That particular combination requires that he use a pseudonym. He said recently that he often feels quite isolated. That led us to talking about whether there could be a new collective noun: “an isolation of judges”.

I doubt if many people outside the profession ever think of judges as being isolated. Or perhaps most people, outside the profession, try not to think of judges at all. “An isolation of judges” like “a murder of crows”…

… In word origins, it says the phrase “a murder of crows” probably dates back to at least the 15th century and relates to the fact that crows are scavengers. If they show up for corpses, they probably show up for a murder. There’s also reference in folklore to crows being judges of people and that “their appearance is an omen of death”.

So, we come full circle to “an isolation of judges”. It’s dangerous to be too isolated. It leads to murderous thoughts. But a writer can always give these thoughts to their characters. Perhaps this explains the popularity of writing crime novels.

My friend suggested “a muttering of judges” or “a perturbation of judges[perturbation: a state of mental anxiety] or maybe “an excoriation of judges[excoriate: to criticize severely].

There are some wonderfully evocative collective nouns:

“A dissimulation of birds” (pretending to be harmless)

“An exaltation of larks”

“A shrewdness of apes”

Then there’s “a coffle of asses” (a roped line). In San Miguel de Allende, opening the window onto the narrow street in front of your casa, you might say, “Look, there’s a coffle of asses going by.”

There doesn’t seem to be a collective noun for collective nouns. “A nicety of nouns”?

The Courage to Imagine

It’s been over a week since the New York Times delivered the following headline to my laptop:

 Physicists Find Elusive Particle Seen as Key to Universe

The particle, apparently responsible for imbuing everything with mass, is called the Higgs Boson. Generations of scientists had been hunting it for over forty years. Clearly, I hadn’t been paying enough attention. I didn’t know they were looking and I struggled to understand what they’d found. I had some catching up to do.

For some reason I thought I could get my bearings by looking at the Periodic Table of Elements I’d memorized when I was in grade 9. That was a long time ago. I’m pretty sure I memorized it because I was told it wouldn’t ever change that much; why else would anyone memorize such a thing.

Have you seen what’s happened to the Periodic Table lately?

The one I studied seems to have been developed in 1869 by Dmitri Mendeleev. Twenty new elements have now been discovered. Some are called Noble Gases. The scientific Adams have been having great fun naming things. The six types of quarks are called “flavors” identified as “up, down, strange, charm, bottom and top”.

As I was reading the article, I was drawn to the quote in the NYT stating: “The finding [of the Higgs boson] affirms a grand view of a universe described by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws — but one in which everything interesting, like ourselves, results from flaws or breaks in that symmetry.”

Scientists knew that something was missing in the “simple and elegant and symmetrical laws” of the Standard Model because the equations predicted a universe which was too symmetrical. It didn’t really account for why anything exists.

My association with symmetry is William Blake. He described the powerful forces in the universe as a tiger burning in the forests at night, and he asked:

“What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

He mean that symmetry is “fearful” because there is something stagnant about sameness and something suspicious about a mirror. Creation must have flaws. To understand the reason why the universe exists, scientists went on the hunt for the flaws, for what they called “the breaks”.

Native myths had already arrived at a similar idea. So many of them have the universe coming into existence because of an error. Raven stole from a box all light there could ever be, flew out through a smokehole, and then — he accidentally dropped it. Everything began.

This theme has fascinated me for some time. It’s present in my new novel, Bring Me One of Everything. Sophia tells her daughter that in Holland in the 1600s a single prized tulip bulb sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The tulips could “break”:

“So a red tulip might come out the next spring with the petals feathered and flamed into really intricate patterns. You know what causes this?… A virus spread by aphids. The virus is the joker in the tulip bed.”  

“Like a mistake,” Alix says. “The world begins because of a mistake. Generally caused by Raven.”  

In reading about the Higgs Boson discovery, I started to notice the allusions, the similes, metaphors and analogies being used to try to encompass and transmit this new information about the universe.

Metaphor juxtaposes disparate elements of the world. Saul Bellow observed that the range of a writer’s capacity for metaphor is a measure of the range of their cognition. The novelist, Bellow proclaimed, must be aware of nothing less than “the total human situation.”

As must the scientist, the poet, the journalist — all of us.

“Without the Higgs field… all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight.” (NYT)

Matter would flow through our hands “like moonlight” (a simile). The invisible force field comprised of the bosuns is described as a “cosmic molasses” (a metaphor). Particles “wading” through the field (of molasses) “gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous.”

The tendency to end up with mixed metaphors is also fearful.

My favorite explanation came from a long grey-haired hippy with yellow teeth. This aged teacher was wearing the problem on the front his T-shirt where the equation of the Standard was written in white letters. He pointed to his chest, to the place of his heart, showing the symmetry in the equation which had to be broken.

He used the analogy of an infinite field of snow “extending throughout all of space, flat, featureless going in all directions”. I’m from Saskatchewan; I had the picture. First he had us imagine a skier there, going the speed of light, leaving no trace; then someone wearing snow-shoes, trudging along, picking up mass; finally, a man on foot, sinking deep into the snow.

This field of snow analogy was superior to conjuring up a room of journalists or a piece of legislation. It was about a journey, and a difficult one.

Some video clips were of the extraordinarily humble Peter Higgs who expressed satisfied astonishment that the boson was discovered in his lifetime. “It’s really amazing to me to find out that it [my theory] was really enough.” When Higgs first sent off his paper containing his newly minted theory to a prestigious science journal, it was rejected. Many other doubters tried to block the way. Gerald Geralnik said the discovery “… shows the value of just imagining, just asking, just trying to follow the leads that you get… We were told that we were wrong. It was scary…”

I am reminded of a comment made by my friend, James Elkins, who wrote to me recently about working on his new book: “doubt gnaws at me, and a far distant voice says it may never happen . . . you have caught yourself up in an illusion.”

After the sense of security and complacency that metaphors and analogies can deliver, many of the scientists wanted none of it. Maria Spiropulu said: “I don’t want it to be simple… or as predicted. I want us all to have been dealt a complex hand that will send me (and all of us) in a good loop for a long time.” And Stephen Hawking: “[The discovery] is a pity in a way, because the great advances in physics have come from experiments that gave results we didn’t expect.”

For the rest of us, “For the other laymen out there, about 6 billion of them,” as one science journalist said at the press conference, “Did we really not have an explanation before this as to why we have mass?”

The scientist pointed to him and said, “It’s not what gives YOU the mass… The bosons get the mass, not you…”

The journalist was a little shaken. He persisted. “To the extent that I am made of fundamental particles does it not have any relevance to me?”

“I think it has a lot of relevance to you,” the scientist said. “Because if that [the boson] did not exist, you would not exist.”

This exchange was so touching. We, the 6 billion of us, are struggling to understand our place in the universe. Surely we are closer then, aren’t we, to understanding the meaning of our existence? And yet explanations fail us. Language fails.

I turn back to the poets, to Rainer Maria Rilke:

“Maybe we’re here only to say: house, bridge, well, gate
jug, olive tree, window —
at most, pillar, tower…
but to say them, remember,
oh to say them in a way that the things themselves
never dreamed of existing so intensely…”

At the end of Bring Me One of Everything, as Sophia is dying, she tells her daughter, “Call out to the universe until it answers.  No less an effort is required.”

 

 

An Intrepid Fan

Dave Kensall arrives on off-the-grid Hardy Island in the M.V. Tyee Titan to have me sign a copy of Bring Me One of Everything for him. You can see the size of the boat he was driving in the background. 

The little boat beside the Titan is 20 ‘ long. So Titan is…80’ or so.

After I inscribed the book with lavish praise for the best, most intrepid, most dogged and devoted fan in the universe, David scrambled over the rock.

 

 

 

 

And motored away.

 

 

 

 

 

What a guy. What a fan. What a boat.

 

The Launch of Everything

(Guest Blog prepared by Louise Mandell)

Luckily I usually look at the junkmail on my computer because that’s where the invitation was lodged. It wasn’t junk. In handsome white lettering on a solid black background, with an image of the Tshimsian stone Twin Masks at the top, it requested my attendance at the launch of Leslie Hall Pinder’s novel Bring Me One of Everything. The image was appropriate because the novel uses, as its central metaphor, the Twin Mask paradox of being sighted and being blind.

The Sto:lo Judge, Steven Point, now the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, would be there.

In sly and sharp contrast to the honorific promise of the Queen’s representative putting in an appearance, the invitation said that the event would be held at The Waldorf Hotel on East Hastings Street. This once flea-bitten, seedy hotel had been spiffed up in recent years, although I understood it still flaunted its cheesy decor from the 1950s. When I practised criminal law in the ‘70s, this was one of my legal pit-stops, as many of my clients were busted at that hotel.

I wondered if His Honor had ever been there.

When I arrived at 6 p.m. sharp, the low-ceiling room was bedecked with banners, as well as  photographs of the author (one taken by Ulli Stelzer, masterful photographer for Reid’s The Black Canoe) and filled with tulips (Sophia, the protagonist’s mother, loved tulips). It was already packed. The Mistress of Ceremonies, Clo Ostrove, careful and passionate, began to orchestrate the event. She mentioned that Leslie had booked the space without knowing that its name, the Hideaway Room, seemed like a pun on Haida-way (in the novel Austin Hart goes to Haida Gwaii to salvage the largest remaining totem poles in the world). Even stranger, she learned that the massive pillars in the room were actually two Tahitian totem poles, covered with bamboo cladding until they could be restored. They date from the same time as the fictional Hart’s visit to remove the Haida poles.

The audience, primed by these stories, was directed by Clo to “All rise for the arrival of His Honor the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia” — which wasn’t really required because we were already standing. Everyone tried to stand taller. Into the centre of the room came Leslie and His Honor, holding hands. Behind them was His Honor’s beloved driver in uniform. Leslie looked around, declared that there should be bagpipes, and proceeded to hold her nose with one hand and chop at her throat with the other, making a sound which was awful enough to be the wind coming from that dreaded Scottish instrument. Thankfully, she ran out of air and His Honor took to the microphone.

What a speaker he is. His words were slow and measured, not so much commanding attention as taking the listener into another place: the realm of the native spirit-house where the elder speaks and things are understood which seem not to be quite of this world. He said, “It’s not every day that the Lieutenant Governor comes to a book launch. In fact you’re downright discouraged from doing so. I left my aide de camp at home.” He talked about their legal work together. “We’d stop trains on their tracks. We thought we could do anything.” And then, “She taught me the honesty you require to be a true warrior.” This man, who once sued Her Majesty and now “stood in her shoes” (as Clo said) was magnificent in his admiration of the author. Who then presented him with a T-shirt having the book design on the front. She said she hoped he’d wear it (along with his “pointy hat”) in the hut he used for carving “out back of that palace the Queen built for you”. She said, “I wrote you a letter; everyone reads your letters before you do, so maybe it’s okay if I read this aloud. ‘There’s a character in the book inspired by you. For the protagonist, Alicia Purcell, he is her guide and protector; he can move between worlds but is fully grounded in his own: intelligent, intuitive and wise. In Greek mythology he is Hermes; in native country he is a shaman. He is my homage to you.’” She added that one of His Honor’s most inspiring qualities was the capacity to forgive, “and what has forged your forgiveness is love”.

At which point the dramatic presentation began, directed by James Fagan Tait (Vancouver) and Leslee Silverman (Winnipeg).  The talented Sto:lo actress, Columpa Bobb, performed three sections of the novel; but “performed” isn’t accurate. She became the Weeping Woman Pole (“who is neither weeping, nor woman”) — a shape that is “wooed, wished, wound out of wood”. She was the pole as it was hacked down by Austin Hart’s expedition. With the lines: “We’ve fallen. Felled. We are all felled,” she made it so.

It was a great relief to next have a light, somewhat comical scene between Alicia (performed by Bobb) and her mother Sophia (performed by Pinder). The two were good together, playing  “resigned, beloved enemies” (as one audience member said). Then came the final scene (the last chapter of the novel) where Bobb again “became” the pole, but now it was being raised back up “inch by blessed inch” accompanied by the drumbeat/heartbeat played by Bobb’s real mother, the accomplished poet Lee Maracle. The closing lines are:

Let the soul in, to begin again, blessed beginning.  

To this place belong, once more. 

Whereupon, as promised in the program, music surrounded us and dancing befell us, thanks to the wonderful music from Leslie Harris’s band (Lesismore).

The entire event had an inspirational quality. I heard one young woman say she was going to quit her job and do what she really wanted to do. The evening had that kind of affect: to see such originality, generosity and intimacy shared all around made us want to meet our potential. I certainly hadn’t expected that. It caused me to assess my life, check it out, make sure I was happy enough, creative enough and fulfilled. This sprang, not from jealousy or envy, but because the spirit in the room was large and abundant and it made us want to make our lives bountiful. Quite an evening.

(Photographs by Nick Oja: The Author and His Honor; the actress Columpa Bobb)

One Book, So Many Book Covers

UTH-new-cover1

Twenty-six years after it first went to print, a revised Under the House was issued by a new publishing company called Shelfstealers. In a later blog I’ll describe what led me to embark on the somewhat curious project of revising a published novel. Some people have been a little scandalized that I did this: a novel is a work of art, not a fact, and therefore shouldn’t be amended.

I want to describe the publishing history of Under the House as an explanation for the multiple outfits the book has worn.

Under the House was first published in 1986 in Canada by Talonbooks. It was then picked up by Bloomsbury Publishing in the U.K., and Random House in the U.S.  Then by Tami Publishing in Finland. Faber and Faber put out a softcover edition in 1989.  It was then reissued as a Random House Vintage.

Publishing contracts generally say that the author will be “consulted” in the choice of a cover, but that the author’s consent is not required. As a young writer, once the book caught the interest of the prestigious Bloomsbury in London (headed at the time by the enterprising and totally charming Liz Calder), I was so in awe of this imprimatur I don’t remember having an opinion about the cover. In fact, I don’t remember being asked.

1st Edition Talon Books1st UK Edition BloomsberyFaber & Faber Edition

The artist hired by Faber and Faber for its edition had an innovative idea: a birdcage with a cloth partly covering the cage. This references the title in an interesting way. It also alludes to a scene in the novel when young Evelyn is given her uncle’s pet budgie to look after and, because she didn’t take proper care of it, it dies. She is fast becoming a troubled child, projecting her lethal sense of abandonment.

When the book was printed by Faber, I remember opening the package, couriered from London to Vancouver, to find a novel written by “Lesley” Hall Pinder. They had misspelled my name. I immediately called the publisher and she “stopped the presses”. She wrote: “it could have been worse, I suppose. Only four hundred copies were printed before we were able to correct the mistake”. Unfortunately, I only have two copies of this collectors edition; somewhere out there are 398 others.

US Edition_Random HouseNorwegian EditionVintage First Edition

Then came the fascinating “woman as house” imagery of the Random House Vintage Edition. These last two covers were my favorites until the 2012 revised edition. The painting is by the talented artist, Wendy Brown, and I selected it from a collection of her works. Shelfstealers was more than willing to accept my choice. The image is perhaps the most subtle and elliptical of all, portraying the creepy mood of suspicion and paranoia which pervades the wealthy Rathbone household as the family tries to keep its dark secrets hidden “under the house”.

Under the House truly is a book with many lives and many looks. Next to the title of the book, the cover is the most important element for a successful marketing of the novel — in addition to a damn good story.

Stay tuned for the answer to a question I am often asked: Why revise a work of fiction?