Monday, October 27, 2008

Mark Blagrave: The Implied Author Part III

Today we present the third installment in Mark Blagrave's (Silver Salts) ongoing series of posts. Here, Professor Blagrave addresses the question of fictionality in biography.

The Implied Author Part III:
Non-non-fiction: Alternative Biography

I used to plot how I would annihilate the signage in bookstores. The categories seemed so arbitrary, constrictive. I thought it might be interesting to liberate the poetry, the literary criticism, the self-help, and the cook books to rub shoulders with one another outside of their individual ghettos. But the burning mission was to tear down and trample upon those smug signs that pretended to distinguish the “fiction” from the “non-fiction.” I have regularly ranted at my students that all writing is, properly-speaking, “fiction.” I generally go on to bore them by trotting out some argument based on the Latin root of the word. All writing, whether it calls itself history or philosophy or a how-to manual, amounts ultimately to the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. And it’s made up.

Maybe it’s odd, then, that I have never been a big reader of conventional biographies. (Yes, I know that’s like admitting to not being interested in The Environment or not reading The Newspaper. It brands a person as somehow not serious.) After all, biography is probably the genre where fact and invention are most gloriously confused. Biographers of the dead are left to sift the external markers of a life: photographs, receipts, recorded sayings, writing (if any), anecdotes. It’s never enough. So they look into milieu and known associates, and try to join up all of the dots. They are almost always helped along by a healthy dose of empathy for their subject: not all that many biographers choose subjects in whom they see nothing of themselves reflected. Even when they are blessed with a living subject and so-called unlimited access, biographers are not immune from being lied to or under-served. I’ve never been able to see how their practice is that different, then, from how novelists render characters. The lives they pretend to expose are actually woven too. And that’s before the reader gets in there, supplying a host of additional inferences and empathetic responses to round out the representation.

I expect that writing historically-based fiction represents merely a more sedate and middle-aged way of trying to destroy those signs in the bookstores. By the time I had finished writing Silver Salts, it was less than clear to me any more exactly what was researched and what was invented. That’s maybe a middle-aged phenomenon too, like forgetting where you parked the car. I can go back to my notes (when I can remember where they are) and check which details about Louis B. Mayer or Al Altman or Irving Thalberg are documentable and which are not, but I don’t. They have (I hope) become “characters,” their lives projected fictitiously. No need for the coy disclaimer about any resemblance being entirely coincidental (which should probably read accidental to be really effective anyway).

Autobiographies, because access to their subject never closes, might be expected to exert a stronger claim to non-fictionality than mere biographies. There is something we want to believe in the “I” witness account. But Nabokov, for one, has made it clear that the autobiographer and the character-narrator are really one and the same. His Speak Memory does a lot to tear down those bookstore signs, and complicate the debate on biographical criticism (sometimes boring but never a bore.) If Nabokov and others have made it possible for traditionally non-fictional autobiography to “cross the floor,” what are the possibilities, I wonder, for the traditionally fictional autobiographies (the so-called first-person narratives that cover a substantial part of an invented life) to do the same in the opposite direction? It’s one of the questions asked, I think, by the recent Commonwealth Prize-winning novel Mr. Pip.

Perhaps the final assault on those annoying signs should be launched from the Science section of my local bookstore (shelved ridiculously as “non-fiction”). Apparently, those physicist types began to wrestle with these problems years ago. They just didn’t know that they were about life-writing too. Which is truer: the fictionalized historical personage or the historicized invented character? Is the cat that is locked inside a sealed box with a vial of poison dead or not? I am inclined to disagree with Schrödinger. I think the cat must be both alive and dead—even after you look.

Coming Soon - Signings: The Agony and the Ecstacy

Friday, October 17, 2008

M is for Moose at

Check out this a neat little article at about Charles Pachter and his hit alphabet book, M is for Moose.

A lot of people showing this book some love, is all I can say ...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mark Blagrave: The Implied Author Part II

Click here for Part I

Here's the second installment in Mark Blagrave's (Silver Salts) ongoing series of posts recording his thoughts and reflections on the experience of being a new novelist. Today, Professor Blagrave shares what it's like to meet the living relatives of characters he's written about.

The Implied Author Part II:
Meeting the Relatives (aka You Can't Libel the Dead)

by Mark Blagrave

Most writers have friends who regularly beg them not to write about them. The pleading is usually a mixture of I-dare-you and would-I-ever-love-that. When you are a playwright, you’re lucky to get through a dinner party or staff meeting without someone exclaiming about some particularly smart line or outrageous behaviour: "You should put that in your next play." I always smile and nod. Sometimes, if I am feeling crusty, I mutter “nobody would believe it.” I never use the material. I just haven’t ever worked that way. I don’t keep a journal where I record slices of life for later use. I don’t (knowingly) base characters on actual people I know. Probably that means there’s something wrong with me — some kind of fear of intimacy issue or something, perhaps because I was bottle, and not breast, fed.

Real people whom I have no chance of ever meeting, on the other hand, fascinate me as material. My last two plays have been based on the lives and adventures of two extremely obscure, but nevertheless historical, figures. The first is the adventurer whose account of the wreck of the Sea Venture on Bermuda may or may not have inspired Shakespeare in writing The Tempest. I did (almost) everything I could to get to know him: read everything he wrote, including a dictionary of the Powhatan language, researched the Virginia Company, checked into known associates. Then I completely made up a private life for him, to try to explain the historical record. The second figure is a man who came to be known as The Grindstone King of Nova Scotia (people take their glory where they can find it, I guess). Onto his life I have grafted an increasingly-disguised King Lear plot. I’ve stood on the ruins of the man’s house, read his private diaries, boned up on his religious beliefs, and invented huge lies inspired by the known facts of his life. I am pretty sure that William Strachey is not going to corner me in the local Saveasy to tell me something about himself that I should put into the play. And I am working hard to make the Grindstone King so far removed from his actual biography as to be unrecognizable by his descendents. Silver Salts was composed in much the same spirit. Setting the book in the early twentieth century put current dinner parties and staff meetings out of the running, even if I were ever inclined to include them. But I did want “real” people. In an early draft of the book, I had changed all of the names — just a little. There was Norma Shearwater and Leo B. Marks, and so forth. Marc Coté (my editor) urged me to restore their identities, assuring me that “you can’t libel the dead.” So I went ahead, and we published a novel in which the characters with names connected to actual birth certificates may nearly outnumber those I invented. A couple of drafts later, this stopped seeming anything but completely natural. After all, it was clear (to me) they were all being used fictitiously.

Early in September, I was signing copies of Silver Salts in a Chapters store. It was the usual mix of total strangers, former students, old acquaintances, and cousins of cousins that I have come to really enjoy about these events. Then a stranger introduced himself. He was the great-nephew (let’s say) of Walter Golding, a locally-well-known Saint John figure who makes several appearances in the book. Oh God, I madly riffled through the pages in my mind, trying to recall anything offensive I might have intimated about Golding. He was, in fact, a truly upright and nice guy, I remembered. I had made a couple of jokes about his being a Baptist, but nothing intended nastily. The man proceeded to rhyme off the names of half a dozen other living Golding relatives. I looked around for a posse. “You know how you say he always found the right light to stand in?” I did. “Well, I would never have…,” the man started . I could barely hear him over the mantra in my head: “You can’t libel the dead, you can’t libel the dead….” “I would never have thought of that — but it’s exactly what he did, I guess. You got Pop Golding to a ‘T’.” Of course, I had invented that detail out of whole cloth. I think.

We carried on a very pleasant conversation and have since corresponded (after he finished the book). Not once did he say “don’t write about this.” So I did.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for the next installment, a reflection on alternative biographies.

Charles Pachter Profile on Open Book Toronto

Our good friends at Open Book Toronto have put up a profile of Charles Pachter (author of M is for Moose) as well as a few select pieces of his work.

Open Book Toronto, by the way, is a great resource for all book lovers in and around the city. They keep up to date with events, releases, as well as provide excellent articles by and about authors and their books. Go on, give them some love!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Soul of All Great Designs reviewed in The Globe and Mail

The Saturday, October 11th edition of The Globe and Mail featured a fantastic review of Neil Bissoondath's provocative new novel The Soul of All Great Designs:

"In its reckoning of the costs of throwaway identity, The Soul of All Great Designs belongs in bookstores and on award lists around the world. Even more, it belongs on the bedside tables of fiction-lovers everywhere, particularly those who've wondered if the contemporary novel hasn't finally run out of steam."

Well, fiction lovers ... what are you waiting for?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

M is for Moose reviewed in The Toronto Star

Martin Knelman wrote a glowing review of Charles Pachter's M is for Moose for the October 8 edition of The Toronto Star.

The review was advertised on the very front page of the newspaper and took up most of the front page of the Entertainment section as well. In an article brimming over with praise, Mr. Knelman saved the very best line for last:
"I predict that not only will this book be a best-seller this season but that it is destined to endure as one of this country's all-time classics."
We think time will prove him right.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Mark Blagrave: The Implied Author Part I

Today we present the premiere installment in a series of original posts by Silver Salts author Mark Blagrave, recording his thoughts and reflections on the experience of being a new novelist in the 21st century.

The Implied Author Part I:
The Virtual Audience

by Mark Blagrave

“Sequestered.” I think I first encountered that delicious word when reading about the Brontes many years ago — long before I knew it was something you could also do to a jury. The writer’s life, the way many of those nineteenth-century types lived it, was a fine and private place. They and their readers usually met only on the page of their books. My own writing these days happens anywhere from the quiet of my study to the bustle of my car dealer’s service department. But even when I am writing in a crowded waiting room (maybe especially then), I create a kind of bubble of privacy around myself. Writing is one of those intensely pleasurable things you can do by yourself (and, unlike some others, it doesn’t necessarily make you go blind.)

The other day, this arrived in my e-mail inbox: “Allison sent you a message. Subject: Silver Salts,” it began. Then: “ name is almost your characters name...thats a first for me, Now i'll have to read it :)” Maybe I know Allison Dempster’s actual smiley face, though I can’t place it. But I do know that I will now feel utterly guilty if this complete stranger hates what I made of her (sort of) namesake, Lillie Dempster. That is, if I ever hear from Allison again.

My initiation into the agony and the ecstasy of being an author in a wired universe began before the book was published with a casual invitation by someone at Cormorant to join the Facebook group he had set up for the book — casual for him; utterly threatening for me at the time. I wasn’t “on” Facebook, had even made a lot of hay out of how awful I thought it was. But I dutifully created my profile, posted a head-shot, and joined the group. Friends and family and some students actually joined too. Apart from the people at Cormorant and I, though, nobody has yet posted anything. It is all very civilized, supportive, and Canadian, I think. But I can now poke my son — when I remember to log on.

Definitely more unnerving are the posts to the growing varieties of reader-profiles and blogs. Of course I love the ones that say it was a good story or they liked the prose. This is the kind of exchange the internet was meant for, I assure myself. And in some cases I know the writers, or know of them. But then there’s the post by a stranger that reports its writer has just started reading the book and really can’t get into it. That’s not great, but still fine, admirable for its honesty even, until you realize that this judgment will stay on the electronic record, in a kind of suspended animation, for what might as well be forever. As far as the casual browser a year from now will be concerned, that reader was never able to get into the book. Kind of like somebody on Keat’s urn. And maybe she wasn’t, but before the advent of the blog I would (probably) never have known, and therefore not have felt rotten and inadequate.

Allison’s was not my first message from a stranger in the ether. In August, I heard from someone whose daughter had taken home a signed copy of Silver Salts from her “work” (I hope in a bookstore and not a recycling centre). She wrote: “I found Lillie's story to be a tragic one, but liked the fact that she, not once, complained about it. She made do with whatever was thrown her way. The story kept me wanting to find out what was going to happen to her, and I hoped that she would be truly happy at the end. I think she was happy at the end, and I'm glad.” It’s not a review in The Globe, but who could wish for more from a reader? Maybe I envy the Brontes just a little bit less now.

Thanks for reading! Please keep an eye out for Mark's next post: On meeting actual descendants of people portrayed fictionally in the book ("aka You Can't Libel the Dead")

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Q&A with Kathlyn Bradshaw

In our continuing effort to provide you with interesting content, today we're posting a Q&A with Kathlyn Bradshaw, author of The Frankenstein Murders, a sequel/re-imagining of the Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein and a gripping psychological horror-mystery in its own right. Enjoy!

Q&A With Kathlyn Bradshaw

Where did you get the idea to re-imagine the story of Frankenstein?

KB: Basically I started out with a question: “What if everything is not what it seems?” At the end of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ernest Frankenstein is the sole surviving member of his family, and Mr. Clerval has lost his son. What would have been their reaction to Victor’s story? What I wanted to do was to consider Victor Frankenstein’s story from a different perspective. When Captain Robert Walton meets Victor, the captain seems to take everything Victor says at face value. I wanted to present the responses of characters either unconnected to or at least less enamored of Victor and, therefore, more critical of his story.

There must have been a lot of detailed research in writing a book that so closely mimics the writing of Mary Shelley. Could you explain the process you went through in researching the characters and settings for the novel?

KB: Not surprisingly, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was my primary resource. I read and reread that novel numerous times - in whole or in part - at the same time taking many, many notes. While I never had any illusions that I could write like Mary Shelley, my goal was to create a story that connected as much as possible to Frankenstein.

In terms of researching, a few of the characters in my book do appear in Shelley’s novel: Victor Frankenstein’s professors at university, Henry Clerval’s father, and Ernest Frankenstein all have (modest) roles in her narrative. I gave them all moderately bigger parts, building on whatever information I could glean from Frankenstein. The rest of the characters in my book were my creation.

The settings were another matter. Mary Shelley definitely had the advantage over me in that she actually had seen most of the places visited by Victor Frankenstein, and at a similar time in history. I was writing from a twenty-first century perspective about places I had never been. Had I kept a list of the historical and travel books and websites I consulted to attempt this task, the list would be lengthy.

What sort of struggles did you have to deal with in writing this book? Was there a learning curve in writing your first novel?

KB: To write a novel of this length and maintain coherence and continuity, while at the same time building the story was a big challenge. Technically, I had written a novel - of sorts - before this book. My first attempt at book writing, however, had little merit beyond giving me the opportunity to practice developing a story of such length and detail.

Were there any specific books or movies, besides Frankenstein, that inspired you while writing the novel?

KB: Anything written at or around the time that Mary Shelley was writing was definitely helpful, but any stories with a gothic and/or mysterious setting were also useful, for instance, classics such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Movie and television adaptations of stories such as these helped in two ways. First, they provided visual and aural inspiration, and second, they too were derived from someone else’s novel.

What do you hope readers will take from this novel?

KB: On a basic level, I would hope that readers would get some enjoyment out of the book. If readers also took away a new perspective - that they, unlike Captain Walton, do not take the story at face value - that would be good too.

The Frankenstein Murders will be in stores on October 24. Click here for a free preview.

Coming soon: The Implied Author, a series of posts by Mark Blagrave (author of Silver Salts)