Thursday, December 18, 2008

On the side of the Angel

The good people over at the Quill & Quire blog have posted a tribute to our very own Angel Guerra, who just happens to be their most frequent commentator - a compilation of his 'greatest hits', so to speak.

I happen to be really fond of:

"If she’s just a half-sister should we just half-believe her?"

Stand in awe.

Mark Blagrave: The Implied Author Part VIII

Today we present the eighth and final installment in Mark Blagrave's (Silver Salts) series of posts. Here, Professor Blagrave speaks on possibly the biggest pitfall in becoming a big time novelist ...

The Implied Author Part VIII:
Never Enough Attention: Becoming a Monster

Six months after the publication of Silver Salts, I can finally get up (most) Saturday mornings without racing out to buy the Globe and Mail. In another six months, I suppose I will have gotten over the feelings of neglect and resentment that come with not being reviewed. I know I didn’t write the novel so it could be reviewed in the Globe, but there’s still that provincial feeling that if it wasn’t noticed there then maybe the book wasn’t real at all. Or perhaps I just want my grade six teacher to read the paper in her nursing home and think ‘that name rings a bell.’ And it couldn’t hurt sales, could it (there being no such thing as a bad column-inch)? Or maybe I have just become a monster. What happened to that pledge to a life of obscurity I took when I finished my Ph.D.?

Review-envy is only one of many symptoms of my new-found egomania. They range from mild and common to strident and unforgivable.

First, there’s Googling myself. I always include the book title as a limiter in the search; I’m not that far gone yet. Fortunately, the threat of endless returns to those undead blogs that chronicle their writer’s struggle with my opening chapters keeps that practice down to a minimum.

Then there’s moving the books around in stores, making sure the face of mine is out, thereby ‘spining’ somebody else’s precious creation; or sometimes adding a pile of mine to the bestseller table. When I have confessed these Darwinian practices to other writers, they have guiltily admitted to doing the same or worse. And I don’t get into that many bookstores, so I’m protected from myself a little there too.

When I do get into bookstores, and when I am not changing their displays, I have been known to offer to sign copies. Actually, my wife is the guilty one with this, sidling up to managers with a copy and whispering that she has the author handy if they’d like him to deface their stock. She puts it more temptingly than that. And it looks like it’s her devotion talking more than my ego, so they say yes. Similarly, our local indie (even after I sent them a panicked, mildly harassing, e-mail when our local MLA reported he couldn’t get hold of a copy in town) has agreed to her request to display a small sign advertising the book. Sometimes, in airports, I get Sheila to ask for the book, knowing they don’t have it but hoping that (if we fly enough) they will bow to consumer pressure.

Once, we bought a copy of a magazine that had a mention of the book and we went into Watermark brandishing it and wondering why they were so out of the loop. We figure they’ll forget our faces from one time to the next, and what’s the harm if they actually do order the book? Some other traveler will buy it. I’d even buy a copy just to say thank you. If they ever find us out, I hope they will think it’s her pride, but I suspect deep down they’ll know it’s my insatiable appetite for attention.

Another form of collateral damage in all this is what I appear to have done to my mother. Legally blind for many years, she is able to read the newspaper using her peripheral vision, but a whole novel (not in large print) presents a Sisyphean task. Nevertheless, for a recent stay in hospital she packed Silver Salts. She tells me she has read quite a lot of it, and I know that other family members have read her pieces, but the real reason she had it there was so she could promote it to anyone who happened by. She assures me that sales are about to be brisk among the medical set. But then she has always had to love me.

Friends and colleagues have come under the shadow of my burgeoning ego too. I don’t actually keep a written list, of course. That would be crazy. But I would be able in an instant to categorize any name you fed me. There are those who have read the book and said so. They are on the side of the angels. There are those who have bought the book and have yet to read it, but who keep telling me that, and promising to get to it when life settles down a bit. Still friends. But then there are those who I am pretty sure have bought the book but have not reported having read it or not. Did they hate it? Love it and forget it? Bought it, not read it, and forgot it? Finally, there are those (some whom I see every day) about whom I have no information. Will they ever buy it? Ever say something? See? What kind of a person puts his friends and colleagues into these boxes?

I plan to swear off this monstrous behaviour soon — probably when everyone I know has bought the book and ‘fessed up about how they felt about it; or when The Globe prints a review; or…. writing this blog is probably only feeding the sickness. I’ll stop.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Mark Blagrave: The Implied Author Part VII

Today we present the seventh installment in Mark Blagrave's (Silver Salts) ongoing series of posts. Here, Professor Blagrave speaks on what it's like to step into a university class, not as an academic, but as a novelist ...

The Implied Author Part VII:
Live White Male: Meeting the Fiction Class

After it was all over, the instructor told me how excited his class had been to have actually met a live author. I said half-right wasn’t bad. We laughed. But which half did I mean?

His invitation was one of those pinch-yourself moments. Here was a university professor who had put my book on his introductory fiction course. A couple of people had sweetly or jokingly (or both?) mentioned the future possibility, but here was someone who had gone right ahead and taken the chance, this September, with a brand new novel. I mentioned casually to my department chair that I had to be out of town one Friday to talk to a class that was studying my book. She made all the right supportive noises (she always does), teased about becoming practically canonical. It felt pretty good to be a living author.

What I hadn’t thought about was that being studied in a university fiction course necessarily entails having papers assigned about your work. In the abstract, that sounds like another nice trip for the ego. Then the blood begins to freeze. Can the book generate a viable series of essay topics? Will its structure bear that kind of scrutiny? Could it be awkward if the paper topics are miles from my intentions for the book? Will the students hate me when they meet me because they had to write about my book? Luckily, the instructor set a series of close-reading character-based studies, and when he sent me copies of the assignment I thought I could see how each topic might be approached. Even I could probably write the papers; and it was reassuring to see my characters being treated like real fictional characters in real fictional books. Besides, by the time I was to meet the students, their assignments would have been completed and returned, and whatever resentments they might have felt towards me would be well on the way to being channeled towards Mary Shelley.

The day I visited, the class was well into its consideration of Frankenstein. I felt bound, when I walked through the door, to apologize for not being its author. Not that I wanted to be dead, or another gender. Well, maybe a little just at that moment.

I offered to prime the pump with an introduction about how I came to write the book and how I had gone about simultaneously preserving and transforming places and events and people. I think I was heading toward a predictable thesis about the blurring of borders between “fact” and “fiction.” Mostly, I was trying to delay the open question period. As long as I kept talking, I could maybe continue to keep the “authority” in “author.” It would be like I was a dead white male, pontificating from the afterlife.

The questions, when they came, were interesting, thoughtful, a real range. The students wanted to know about everything from how long it took to write the book (too long), to publishing in Canada (too beleaguered), to why I had included the gay couple Percy and Nathan (references to themes of silencing and finding voice). Was I uncomfortable writing the “intimate bits”? Not as much as I should have been perhaps. Why had I chosen to write from Lillie’s perspective (as a female, among other things)? All fiction is an appropriation of voice. I need distance from me. Never mistake the narrator for the author.

The big challenge, though, and I should have seen it coming, came from the student who asked whether it was weird hearing other people’s interpretations of the book, and wasn’t it odd how people might read in more than I actually intended? It was not the first time I had heard the question. It surfaces regularly in my own introductory classes. But then it’s always about other people’s work, and they are often dead, and always out of the room. From time to time I vary the analogy I use to address it, but I always feel confident in the answer. Usually, I try to liken writing to designing an engine: nothing goes in and stays in by accident (though it may be discovered by accident, stumbled upon in the process of inventing). You wouldn’t ask your mechanic (I say) whether he meant to install that carburetor just that way (I really should change that to fuel injector, one day). Sometimes, I use the analogy of directing a play. The effective director doesn’t tell the actors what to do, but creates a set of circumstances in which they can create, all the time predicting the alternative solutions they might come to. Authors work that way too, I say. But this time I was the author, and I was afraid my answer sounded like whining, or boasting. I gave it anyway, but it has led me, in the weeks since, to wonder about breaking in a new analogy. This one’s from parenting, so the whining and boasting aren’t so out of place. I gave the book its DNA, created opportunities and imposed restrictions, tried to create obstacles to its being misinterpreted, made some educated guesses about how it might grow up and adjusted accordingly. But can I really foresee every possible viable interpretation? I guess not.

The class ended with a few shy requests that I sign books. I thought how interesting it was, how fitting, that these books would carry the marks of two sets of handwriting: the students’ careful marginal notes as they negotiated a relationship with the novel, and my scrawled claim to authorship on the title page. We were, after all, partners, old acquaintances who had begun to know one another long before we spent forty minutes, live, in the same room.

Next and Final Installment: "Never Enough Attention: Becoming a Monster

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


... to Darcy Tamayose, author of Odori and newest recipient of the Canada Council of the Arts' 2008 Canada-Japan Literary Award ...

... and to Neil Bissoondath, whose novel The Soul of All Great Designs was named to The Globe and Mail's Top 100 of 2008!

Good week.