Friday, 7 August 2015

A blurb, a cover design, a back jacket

   Aside from the cafe artiste (with a Mac's sliver of matte aluminum-clad screen positioned next to an Americano), I'm supposing that most writers tap tap tap in isolation. When they're lucky they can break from that creative solitude and rely on the kindness of colleagues, with whom they've established a quid pro quo relationship: "Sure, I'll happily read your _____ [novel, story, play, or poem, screenplay...]" (Of course there's an unstated but completely understood reply: "So long as you return the favour and read my _____ [novel, story, play, or poem, screenplay].")

    This time around, C and D, two locals, came over to my place for dinner and presented feedback, mixing kind words with excoriating ones. (During the recovery period later that night the old chestnut "With friends like that who needs enemies?" blossomed in my consciousness a few times. As did "Be careful what you wish for" with an addendum: "You asked for criticism, what did you expect?!?")

   The third colleague-reader, thousands of km away in Ontario, emailed me a short list of literary misdemeanors and freely offered a blurb—

   From Up River and One Night Only is not your typical rock 'n roll novel. Sure it's full of wild misfits, day job drudgery, and dreams of stardom. But the real headliner here is Grubisic's intoxicating, immersive language. It's a cacophony of linguistic power cords, a picaresque road trip with no particular place to go. We have never seen a coming-of-age story quite like this one. 
                                              —Mark Sampson, author Sad Peninsula and The Secrets Men Keep

   For a novel set in 1980 and featuring adolescents making decisive moves from their 1970s-era youth to 1980s-influenced adulthood, discussions between Finn at Honk Honk Graphic Arts and myself centred on all things vintage—from orange, brown, and yellow smiley face wallpaper (not desktop wallpaper, but the kind of wallpaper that came in rolls and was used to decorate a kid's room or kitchen) to a circa 1980 photograph from a friend's archive of high school party pics. The result of our conversations and exchanges of historical images (including flocked brocade wallpaper that, while historically true possessed a visual loudness that made it impossible to use) can be see below. Hello 1975 and 1980 in all your decade-specific glory—

 Here's a single-chapter excerpt—

Déviation: Harmony

    Even though once upon a time he’d caved to pressure and agreed to make an effort, Gordyn could admit that his opinions about the Barbershop Harmony Society had lurched drunkenly from the get-go. The weekend gatherings organized under the Society’s firm if benevolent rules (which under certain light looked fascist, Gordyn thought, a benevolent dictatorship) felt constricting enough already. Worse, the endless quest for “Let’s track down that darned overtone, gentlemen. From the top, 1 and 2 and 3—,” that holiest of grails, edged him nearer to insanity.
    He reported these facts to Dee. Her dull parallel experiences with their mother meandered from a placid stream of easy listening radio tunes before and after torturous Canadian TV to pulverizing crackers with a rolling pin for next week’s casseroles #1 and #2 while listening to reminiscences about girlhood crushes and huge family picnics in Quebec. Moping, Dee stared out from shut windows and wished for a pet—something high-strung and requiring long walks, preferably.
    Intellectually, Gordyn saw the sound reasoning of events reserved for fathers and sons. He admitted too, the choice could have been worse. Like Jay’s dad, his might assume thrilled, bellowing attendance at the rank air—BO, popcorn, and snuck booze, reportedly—of pro-wrestling matches. Or, debate-worthy and fierce dedication to idiotic ring heroes named Mr. X and André the Giant. Or, Edmund could similarly expect eternal low-wattage bouts spent in grimy striped coveralls while stuck beneath a car on jacks in an unheated garage. And see his face register signs of deep caring about the manly arts of eyeballing spark plug corrosion and oil viscosity.
    Selling the surefire barbershop quartet idea, Edmund had tousled Gordyn’s hair (prompting corrective mirror time shortly after). He lured him with the inevitability of trips to fancy hotel banquet rooms in historic Philadelphia and sun-dappled Sacramento. He’d repeated “We’ll have a blast, just you wait and see” with an air crash prayer’s desperation. That last promise proved exactly halfway correct. The former anchor baritone of an army barracks quartet, Edmund returned to the stage with unabashed gusto, eating up the attention, Gordyn’s mother commented, like an elephant with peanuts.
    Two years and seven months later, the upcoming events—definite anti-blasts now—loomed greyly, ominous as mushroom clouds. Blind to his son’s heels-dug body language, or simply ignoring it, Edmund charged headlong into literally harmonious crowds, visibly eager for trial runs of fresh jokes he’d scooped up at the office and revved to propose catchier arrangements for standards.
    They’d made it as far away as a plum-curtained stage in a high school gymnasium on the outskirts of exotic Spokane, Washington, Gordyn noted sourly, the Versailles of eastern Washington.
    Earlier, Gordyn had predicted that Edmund’s enthusiasm would turn out to be a phase. Over and again, he felt annoyed by that paltry, flawed intuition. Instead of a showdown he continued to go along, never not straggling. Sooner or later his father would grow weary of his captive son’s clearly signalled acts of going through the motions and giving not one breath more.

    Permanent authentic smiles cemented on, gleeful Evergreen District fathers, visiting from as south as Oregon, strutted and yukked in escalation, saying “Right as rain,” “Smooth as silk,” and “Fine as frog’s hair” as they adjusted velvet bow or string ties and twisting waxed moustaches (real and mimed varieties). They threw in “23 skidoo” alongside hearty backslaps whenever possible, as though they breathed in the Edenic air that had circulated before the invention of mustard gas and trench warfare, when everyone exclaimed, “Golly gee whiz, what a humdinger!” whenever one of those bicycles with an enormous spoked wheel wobbled by.
    Surveying the rooms coldly, Gordyn thought that bygone became bygone for a reason. Each and every one of them took strides away from the past each and every day, so why pretend otherwise? “Knucklehead,” he’d hear, sure that none of the men used that one at home. “‘Rapscallion’?” he’d hiss. “Yeah, right, dipshits.” He yearned to spray “Wake Up, You Fuckers” on walls using black paint.
    The sons, meanwhile—of two unequal-sized camps: dutiful but sullen and watchful for cigarette-sneaking opportunities, or chirpy chips off the ol’ block—milled around perimeters until instructions boomed from one of the handful of regional bigwigs. The Big Cheese would whip out a brass kazoo and declare they ought to all clear their throats and warm up with “Wait ‘til the Sun Shines, Nellie” before the actual competitive harmonizing hummed into buzzing life. “Gentlemen, start your engines,” and another round of yuks echoed.
    Alone on washroom breaks, Gordyn would sense his father’s need for a renewed display of mooing enthusiasm. He’d stub out the hour’s one pleasure and blow smoke out any window he could crack open. “Fiddlesticks,” he’d mutter, on a roll, and dawdle a few extra minutes. “I’ll skedaddle a while, crocodile.” Activity in rooms with toilets was sacrosanct to Edmund. He’d never ask.
    Even ad libitum, the true love of barbershopping that had once sparked Gordyn’s sense of wonder, gradually tarnished due to continued exposure. Returning on Saturday nights, and sometimes Sundays, he’d crumple the Delphine-sewn green and white striped vest at the bottom of his closet. But like a magical fairy tale object its reconstituted form—laundered, ironed, folded into a perfect square—appeared in a T-shirt drawer at the dawn of every barbershop weekend.
    His mother made no secret that she appreciated the father-son hobby slot. More to the point, Gordyn suspected, she relished the serene, joke-free household of their occasional days away.
    Everyone grumbled about The Chords of Damocles, a weak, nonsensical pun of a quartet name, but since a previous generation had voted it in an abrupt change seemed tantamount to an insult, a back rudely turned on glorious history. And if nothing else, barbershoppers bowed deeply at tradition, or one wholesome strand of it at least.
    On nights before the other classic warm-up number, “Hello, My Baby,” launched in wolfish croons that bounced around the hall, the painfully distended “rag time doll” of an otherwise unremembered dream woke Gordyn before sunrise. At the twice-yearly meet-and-greets with perfumed clusters of Sweet Adelines in billowy translucent pastels and churchy white stockings, childhood complaints about a sudden fever or catching a bug sprouted on Gordyn’s tongue.
    Oblivious, his father pushed him toward girls, pointing right at one or another he’d deem “a beaut.” And as Gordyn got older Edmund added “Old enough to bleed, old enough to butcher” in a husky, hopeful whisper.
    Gordyn always said “Cute outfit” in a clipped voice that implied the spite-full opposite. “Did your grandmother sew that at home?” He absorbed details with Mr. Blackwell precision—constellations of white cotton eyelet, a bubble bath froth of lace trim, satin ribboning from the More is More School. He regretted the girls’ dismay, but couldn’t resist; any shame evaporated quickly.
    By mid-Grade 11 Gordyn felt certain that if he spotted one more copy of the Norman Rockwell poster of men harmonizing with sharply parted oil slick hair and comically high-waisted pants, he’d heave. He embraced the dramatic scenario of going postal or transforming into a mad, crashing china shop bull, foreseeing his father’s embarrassed expression and beet-cheeked vows to never return. As an idea, raving lunacy had its uses.
    Edmund, now on the Evergreen executive, hoped to leave his mark and bring the group’s name up to date. West Coast Express, he offered (with sincere if tentative alternates: Vest, Left, Best), but everyone thought it reminded them of a passenger train.
    Beyond tuned Society ears, Gordyn recommended The Dapper Hams, and said as much whenever the topic arose. His father wondered aloud how someone so young could get so cynical. The hurt expression guilted Gordyn into screwing on a smile and tilting his neck and aligning with the lonesome, moon-worshipping wails of the rest.


Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Literary Life: Pondering 'Success' and 'Failure' (an essay-in-progress)



Success and failure — and the meanings and measurements of each — has occupied my mind more often than usual with This Location of Unknown Possibilities. The first bout related to the challenge (which occasionally felt like an ordeal) to secure (1) a literary agent interested enough in it (its literary merit, to a degree, but more so — I suspect — its saleability) and (2) a publisher willing to offer me a contract and bring the benighted novel to market.
This rough period reminded me of thankfully bygone days of seeking employment. You know: you're greenly young, have no practical experience to speak of, and pad your resume with enough material so that its one page of content doesn't look too sad and empty. You screw up your courage to walk into strange businesses and ask for "the manager, please." You hear one of two responses: "We're not looking for anyone right now" or "We'll keep this on file" (with the image of the resume sheet landing in the trash can a shadowy truth in the eyes of the speaker). 
So it was with literary agencies, only worse. Typically, not even an automated line of reply to the self- and talent-promoting letter of query so artfully crafted. Or else, a response that simply emphasized the ineligible nature of the project. As such, an implicit message: you and your work would be a losing venture for us...with a roster of writers like you, we'd be bankrupt in a season.
Less bottom-line oriented perhaps, or just staffed by nicer and more generous and caring people, the publishers responded with generally positive and even lauding words, but also with the familiar brute facts: that they're able to publish only a relatively small number of titles each year; that with so many people writing books, the field has become fiercely competitive; and that the novel submitted isn't quite right for their catalogue.
"It's the nature of the business," you tell yourself. Beneath that and myriad other feel-better and hate-the-world platitudes, there's another: "Loser." The persistent j'accuse-ing finger is pointed at right at you, a so-called representative of the creative class.
Then you're offered a contract and you celebrate that small, wonderful miracle. Attractive cover and all, the book comes out. You get a few lauding reviews, and you're thankful, but at the same time you notice how many review venues, the national ones everyone desires and prays for, ignore your book. Just as they did with your first novel. You can rationalize their thinking, true. Limited available space for book reviews. The smallness of the press. The obscurity of the author. Etc. All the while the furious thinking is returning to condemnatory words: failure, loser. Giving up and not leading yourself into disappointment or self-doubt appears as an insight that has all the markings of True Wisdom. 
And at last a royalty cheque, paltry of course, well under half of what your first book earned, which in itself was nothing to brag about. Not enough be pay a month's rent. You joke that if you'd really wanted to earn tons of money, you'd have gotten a realtor's license. But still. You can't help but feel — and think, and zealously believe — that all of these events form a pattern that has an unpleasantly plain message woven right into it: by the measures that matter, your book was and is a failure. Ditto for you, since you're its author. How could anyone argue otherwise?

More on this later...



The above might come across as tiresome, whiny, and childishly self-pitying, I realize. There are moments when that’s more or less exactly what I tell myself. (Says my harsh inner parent: “Boo hoo, in the time it takes you to feel wallow in woe-is-me, a fellow human has died of starvation.”)
So, don’t get me wrong. Essentially, writing in itself has ordinarily felt like — and usually feels like — a worthwhile experience. Despite discouragement, I write and will no doubt continue to write. I publish just about whatever I do manage to finish. On good days I enjoy spending hours (how many of which is of course contingent on my full-time, real-life paying job) tapping on a keyboard and figuring what I want to say and how I’d like to phrase it.
Still. As a hedonist and someone who doesn’t particularly want to loiter under a grey cloud mood or to feel that a chosen endeavour that could give me both pleasure and a sense of accomplishment is in fact not, I’m interested in stepping beyond a paradigm that I’ve fallen into (in part because that paradigm has become so normalized and widespread as to seem natural). 
And if I don’t want to accept the daily self-directed accusation (ie, low sales = failure, no prominent reviews = failure, no literary prominence = failure, no literary prize = failure, and so on), then it’s clear to me that opting out — says me, writing right now; send me a Giller nomination, and I’ll no doubt change my tune! — of a particular system or at least the mindset encouraged by that system, might be of stupendous benefit. 
What’s that system, you ask? Writing as a commodity that’s solely produced to be sold in epic numbers. 
As an enterprise and a kind of adjunct profession, publication — the single goal of writing when writing is a sales-driven profession — is often woefully lacking. If the measure of success is  sales and the pinnacle of that is sales plus recognition, then there’s no mystery why I don’t feel very contented with the contemporary version of ‘the writer’s life.‘ 
In large part that’s because in associating writing with the very word “profession” I’m necessarily also taking it closer to “business” (and with it toward entrepreneurialism and, ahem, marketing and sales). And once I’m there, comparing myself to a business results in the deflated states of mind mentioned earlier. If as a writer I’m also a business, then I have no doubt that I’m a flailing business, deeply in the red. Numbers don’t lie, right? If a small business, my doors would have shut years ago due to lack of customers interested in my unique inventory. Writing-as-business (that must thrive to remain afloat) and writer-as-brand (that constantly needs to grow its market) seems anathema to writing-as-art or writing-as-fun or writing-as-intellectual-activity because if the steady growth of sales is the primary goal of the business model, then finding ways of widening the market and moving more and more units becomes the primary purpose of the writer-as-entrepreneur. Anything less is backwards thinking, anti-business. 
That business view — which is on the ascendant — encourages me to see any publication (a novel, a review, a short story) as a part of my expanding brand portfolio. It leads me to consider each story and each novel and each review and each public reading and each appearance of my name somewhere as part of a brand-building undertaking, the goal of which is not brand maintenance but steady growth, quarter after quarter. 
As the language and expectations of the business model creeps in, I gradually become a weird kind of corporation in which I’m at once the sales force, the corps of workers on the factory floor, and the imperious Board of Directors that notices the laughably puny royalty cheque, the dismal sales numbers (and utter remoteness from a bestseller list), the lack of reviews in prominent, national-level media, and absence of the brand on literary prize longlists and shortlists, and the overall under-performance of the brand at the level of consumer recognition. That same Board demands results, but as for the right answer to the question “How?” all the underlings — the sales force, the product developers, and the grunts at the assembly line — seem wholly incapable of generating. 
The business model also encourages shuttering the whole place and saying “enough’s enough” since the business hasn’t proven to be competitive enough. What fool, after all, keeps the door to their business open day after day when no customers come in? What entrepreneur in their right mind spends countless hours sitting at the till of an empty shop? What salesperson would continue pounding the pavement when, after a few years’ work, their earnings amounted to considerably less than the monthly wage earned by a McDonald’s patty-flipper? 
If the philosophy of business is “Sell and succeed or quit,” then that simple combination of words informs me of my obvious option. 

More later...

[August 2015, several months later.] The advantage to blog-writing is its immediacy. The disadvantage is the same: what might seem pressing and relevant and oh-so-important on the hour it’s being written about may seem wank-y, whiny, or wildly overstated by the next day. The comments above stemmed from a need to write out my feelings, to organize and make some sense of them. Feelings related to failure and shortcomings occur in everyone, I suppose. I think that by writing out my feelings related to my perceived severe limits as a writer I was trying to write my way to a solution, a eureka that would make me see a tired old subject in a fresh light and give me solid reasons to continue.

Since I last wrote about my feelings of failure above, I’ve of course continued to write. Arts journalism like author profiles and film and book reviews, mostly, along with scholarly stuff.
And there was that novel to read one more time. (Not one last time, though. Currently the typeset manuscript is sitting on my kitchen table, being ignored. When I do get to it, my read-through will be the final opportunity to make any changes before off-stage magic at the printer turns it into an actual book.)
Also, there was the writing of letters to American and UK publishers, all of whom to date have sent back kindly-worded rejection emails that simultaneously praise my novel and its style while telling me that the book does not fitting into their current publication vision (whatever that means).
As you’d expect, the trickle of rejections has kept the failure subject within my thoughts.
Despite knowing better, I’m still drawn to the writing-as-business view and the writer-as-brand perspective. Those ideas circulate through the air and, for me at least, unavoidable.
Still, other perspectives have made their way to me and offered ways out of being in the position of the small business operator whose unequivocal failure as an entrepreneur is made clear as he writes GOING OUT OF BUSINESS, EVERYTHING MUST GO on a cardboard sheer after his banker has declined an extension of his line of credit.

Lately, I’ve been considering another option: writing as a hobby. Similar to kite flying. Or knitting. Or bonsai-keeping. Or being in a dad band.
The advantages of the hobby strategy strike me as limitless. (But please keep in mind that I’m writing this as someone who has no hobbies. My speculation, then, could be completely off the mark. I could be idealizing.) For one, you choose a hobby because you enjoy both the thing itself (standing in a field on a breezy day, say, and watching the kite flutter and swoop in the blue sky) and you find pleasure in its challenges (keeping the kite aloft as a breeze subsides). It’s relaxing and stimulating; essentially it’s leisure. It’s fun. If there’s a goal—a Buckingham Palace from Lego, all the recipes from Julia Child’s first cookbook, making jam from berries you grew—the enjoyment’s the foundation and primary goal. It’s all inherently unprofessional because it’s a form of play. And as a hobby, it’s exclusively for you. There’s nothing much at stake. The jam’s too runny, try again and learn from previous mistakes (but also eat the failed version because it still taste good even if its looks leave something to be desired). As a result, it’s uncompetitive. While you’re standing there, smiling with a tilted neck at the fluttering kite, you’re not fretting about crafting the perfect letter of introduction to an agent who, if she discerns enough salability in you, might deign to represent you. Knitting that scarf for your nephew Colton, likely as not you’re not wondering how you can make sure the National Knitting Post and maybe even the New York Times Knitting Review will notice you and assign a reviewer to sing the praises of your latest project.
As a strategy, there’s much promise in the humble hobby.

The other came to me heavy-handedly via House of Cards. I’m pondering it, but not sure I’m going to make a purchase.
On an episode when all of Frank and Claire’s machinations appear to be amounting to pursed lips, high blood pressure, and not much else, there’s a group of contrasting figures—Buddhist monks spending a week in the lobby of President Underwood’s house constructing an elaborate  mandala from coloured sand. The effort is exacting and physically demanding; it consumes whole days.
At the end: bye bye. It’s swept away, the entire week devoted to a sustained meditation on and lesson about impermanence.
Relatedly, an acquaintance, another writer, wrote to suggest that writing should be meditative and therapeutic. Yoga with a keyboard, in essence.
Intellectually, I can see the appeal of that approach. At the same time, it strikes me as “not me,” just as a suit and tie and working at a bank seems impossibly foreign to my personality type (The type, you ask? The type that balks at formal woolen clothing the same way a dog reacts to plastic anti-itch-scratching collars.)
Should I take the monk’s lesson in spirituality to heart and begin to write as an exercise that teaches me something valuable about the truth of human existence, I’ll be sure to report it here (before, of course, I erase it from existence).